Trouble in the Poor People's Campaign
WASHINGTON, D.C.--There is something about pluralism that leaves some people out. The poor have been left out of American political and economic life mainly because they have never had the resources to play the game.
It had always been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision to build a strong pressure group out of the poor of the country, strong enough to compete with the interests that run the nation now. His idea was to bring that rag-tag pressure group to Washington, to somehow "pressure" Congress into recognizing poverty as a problem and more important, into recognizing poor people as a political force.
Behind the demands for 30 to 50 billion dollars in programs for the poor lies this purpose--to bring poor people into the system. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller called the Poor People's Campaign "a kind of lobbying."
It is lobbying for people who have never had a lobby. It is an experiment and a discovery. But so far, after a week and a half in West Potomac Park, it has also been a failure. And it has failed for ancient reasons. The campaign simply lacks the money, the leadership, and the talent to play the game, and few people in Washington are going to help it play.
It is unfortunate that no one wants to help, because the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (a man as dry and heavy as his name) has been saying over and over that the campaign is some sort of last chance before something bad happens. And he is right. It is the first and the last chance for the poor to enter the market, and if they are kept out this spring, they will probably reject that market entirely. Right now, the campaign is in chaos.
Late last week, Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members revealed that the campaign was in serious financial trouble. It lacked food and adequate housing for the people already in Washington and the leaders were issuing holding orders for those already on the road.
SCLC needs no less than $3 million to survive through the middle of June. Right now, the only hope for getting this money is a massive march on Memorial Day that may bring hundreds of thousands of people (and dollars) into Washington to support the campaign.
Leadership is a definite problem too. Abernathy has been on the road almost constantly since the campaign reached Washington. In charge at Resurrection City is the Rev. James Bevel, a bright man, but hardly an inspiring leader.
While Abernathy was calming congressional sympathizers last Wednesday, Bevel, in contrast, was giving reporters a hard line at a press conference. Abernathy himself has been vacillating. No one knows whether he is "hard" or "soft." He seems to change his mind daily.
The original tactic of keeping demands vague has caused trouble in the ranks. The poor people at Resurrection City have very little idea what their leaders are after, and they are left with a feeling of confusion and a lack of direction. Many came to Washington to escape poverty at home. "I came here because things are better," a woman from Lebanon, Miss., told me. Many expect to stay permanently. But so far, life in the plywood A-frame shelters has hardly been uplifting--materially or spiritually. It is uncomfortable and boring. People are going home. The Washington Star said that 50 had left by the fourth day.
If there is inspiration, it comes in small doses. The predominant theme is "dropping by to see how things are going." So far the players have included: Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Stokely Carmichael, Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), and New York Mayor John Lindsay. The personality types tour the camp, shake hands, smile broadly, and leave. That's all.
The reaction of Congress to the campaign has been pretty much as expected. Congress does not like "blackmail," and that phrase is loaded with racial overtones.
I.F. Stone wrote last week, "To see the Poor People's March on Washington in perspective, remember that the rich have been marching on Washington ever since the beginning of the Republic. . . . They don't have to put up in shanties. The object is the same but few respectable people are untactful enough to call it handouts."
What the campaign is trying to do is exert the same kind of pressure on Congress as special interests have been exerting for nearly 200 years. If that is blackmail, then the Congress ought to be used to it.
The difference, of course, is that there is latent in the Poor People's demands, a threat of violence. But to associate the violence and the campaign is absurd. There will be violence this summer anyway; there will surely be blood and looting. The campaign was conceived as a way to provide a possible alternative to that violence, if only by making efficient political use of the threat of violence.
The campaign is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it is so un-revolutionary as to be almost farcical. At a time when it can be clearly seen that the American system has failed 20 per cent of the people of this country, the poor people still want to get into that system.
V.O. Key writes in Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, "To carve out a place for itself in the politico-social order, a new group may have to fight for reorientation of many of the values of the order." To a surprising degree, the Poor People's Campaign is not fighting for this reorientation.
The programs that SCLC describes as "goals" are hardly radical. Its idea of guaranteed income is only for "those either too young, too old, or too handicapped to work." They merely want welfare spruced up, more efficient. Their demands for jobs have already been proposed by the Johnson Administration. The Poor People's Campaign, then, is a struggle to get in, a struggle to educate, not a struggle to force America to accept a radically new kind of society.
That Congress misunderstands the campaign is not at all surprising. Congress has always had a Neanderthal brain in matters of social change. But the campaign is lacking in popular support also. The liberal money that normally backs adventures like this one is going to Kennedy and McCarthy; an election year is a bad time for a Poor People's Campaign.
More than that, people with contacts in Washington can sense the mood of that city well--it is vicious. Washington in May--in any other year a beautiful place for a campaign--is in 1968 angry and gloomy and brutal.
Washington is not only a nation's capital, it is coincidentally a city--a city that had a riot last month, and since that riot a crime wave. A few recent examples of Washington's mood include:
* A bus driver was murdered in a holdup Friday, touching off a short strike. Drivers first demanded a policeman on every bus, now may settle for curtailment of all service after 10 p.m. Bus robberies are double last year's pace.
* A group of businessmen, burned out in the April riot, have hired nationally prominent attorney Edward Bennett Williams, to look into the possibility of suing the city for damages. Police did not, fire at looters, and troops were not brought in soon enough--the same old stuff.
* Park and Shop, Inc., representing the most powerful of the District's business interests, took out a full-page advertisement in the newspapers demanding more protection from the city and asking that "troops be placed on duty to supplement the policy forces prior to and during" the campaign.
* The House District Committee last week called Washington Public Safety Director Patrick V. Murphy on the carpet and demanded to know why police would not shoot rioters.
* Since the riot, Washington restaurants have lost $40 million in business. Tourism, the District's staple, has taken a plunge. After dark the downtown streets are nearly empty.
Meanwhile, a progressive-minded but basically impotent city government has issued a 44-page report on the April riot, calling for many of the programs suggested in the Kerner Report and emphasizing more local control of businesses in the ghetto. But the city government appears to be in a less powerful position than the interests that have always run Washington (Park and Shop and friends) through the Congressional committees.
Beyond that, the city is not ready for reconciliation, much less progress. It is above all scared and vicious. That is not a good environment for any kind of campaign. It is a horrible environment for a disorganized campaign that is not sure where it is going.
It is sad that no one recognizes that this campaign is a last chance, that soon poor people will no longer want to get in. They will be fed up with that. It is sad that they are not getting help and it is sad that Congress misunderstands them and the city of Washington hates and fears them.
But listen to who they are if you wonder what will happen next. A black man testifying at the City Council hearings after the April riot said it: "This is my feeling. I am frustrated, I am angry, and I am mad.