Finishing the Unfinished Business of Dr. King

August 2011 (original 2009) by The Poverty Initiative and its Poverty Scholars Program, led by Willie Baptist, and including Charlene Sinclair
(The following article is a compilation of excerpted texts taken from the book by The Poverty Initiative, A New and Unsettling Force: Reigniting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign [New York: The Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, Summer 2009], combined with updated information found at, where the book can be purchased. The book was a collective writing project of the Poverty Scholars Program of The Poverty Initiative, led by Willie Baptist, and including Charlene Sinclair. This article is reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.)

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A Movement, Led by the Poor, To End Poverty
Established in May 2003, the Poverty Initiative of Union Theological Seminary exists “to raise up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a movement, led by the poor, to end poverty.”

As we enter the 21st Century, we face increasing polarization of the rich and poor. This is the defining social issue of our time. The Poverty Initiative believes that it is possible to end poverty—not merely manage it. It is our moral imperative and theological calling to do so. This is a spiritual journey.

The cornerstone of the Poverty Initiative is the Scholar-in-Residence Program. Willie Baptist has served as the Scholar-in-Residence since its inception in 2004. The Poverty Initiative’s signature event is the Poverty Truth Commission inspired by Truth Commissions held in South Africa and elsewhere. Poverty Truth Commissions are organized to hear the stories of people from around the country whose lives are in jeopardy due to poverty. Prominent religious, academic, and community leaders hear and respond to these testimonies, just as the Poverty Initiative itself began as a response to the testimony of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Unfinished Business
In important ways, in the last years of his life, King anticipated many of the economic, political, religious, and ethical problems of the present times. In the journey from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to planning the Poor People’s Campaign, he became more than just a black civil rights leader (for 1950s and 60s America), but a bearer of a still-relevant vision, set of values, and mission for the entire nation and globe. Today, he stands as a model of leadership and commitment for all who are righteously concerned about the crying injustice and inhumanity of abandonment in the face of abundance, of poverty in the midst of plenty.

This broader vision and analysis is expressed in his strategic turn from a civil rights to human rights framework. He laid this out in an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff in May of 1967, which deserves to be quoted at length:

We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.[1]

This analysis suggests the necessity of building a broad-based movement in order to make plausible any significant “redistribution of economic and political power.” The practical implication of this stance required the uniting of poor whites with poor people of color on the basis of what they have in common: their poverty and powerlessness.

In a number of respects, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 anticipated the challenges of our times. We are in a time of acute economic crisis, both in the United States and globally. The acuteness of the crisis has revealed its unique chronic aspects as expressed in the impoverishment of increasing segments of the middle income strata, the so-called “middle class.” Alongside rising hunger, homelessness, and economic inequality, we find hints of a growing protest movement at the grassroots level. At the same time, the current economic crisis has seriously questioned the prevailing ideological and theological orthodoxies, which have defined the limits of the “realistically” possible for at least the last forty years. The global financial collapse has shown the economic arrangements are contingent and fallible, and that we can legitimately imagine new and different ways to structure economic institutions. But without a movement issuing from the bottom demanding a more just set of arrangements, it is unlikely that the current crisis will be resolved in a direction qualitatively different than that of the past two decades, which saw a historically unprecedented redistribution of wealth upward. An accounting of the lessons of King’s Poor People’s Campaign and a study of their application to the contemporary struggles of the dislocated and dispossessed is thus both timely and necessary.

Almost all discourse about King has focused on his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, his theological critiques of Jim Crow, his oratory skills, and even his shortcomings in gender politics. Little has been said about his commitment to ending poverty and even less about his vision for a Poor People’s Campaign as a historic effort of the poor to unite across racial, gender, ethnic, religious, and geographic lines. Little has been said about how, in devising the strategy and tactics of that campaign, he drew on the historical lessons provided by similar efforts of previous campaigns, such as the struggles in the 1930s of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an organization of the poor cotton pickers united across color lines, and of the unemployed white and black veterans united in the famous Bonus March on Washington D.C. Nothing has been said about how this pivotal aspect of the Poor People’s Campaign was a counter to the age-old ‘divide and conquer’ strategy applied as far back as the old slave plantation days. The slaveocracy utilized the poor whites to hold down the black slaves, while utilizing the wealth and power derived from the exploitation of the black slaves to entice and manipulate poor whites. For more information on these plantation politics, see W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction.

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Concerned about the lack of careful and systematic study of the Poor People’s Campaign—both its goals and the reasons for its demise—the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary decided in 2008 to concentrate much of its energies on a yearlong study and historical analysis of King’s last years. The project brought together leaders from different poor communities who agreed to join the effort mostly because they felt that networking with other community and religious leaders would greatly strengthen their struggles and organizations. This joint exploration led to the Poverty Initiative’s decision to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign with the development of a Poverty Scholars Program. With these leaders, the Poverty Initiative began by identifying and connecting with local organizing work in impoverished communities and holding strategic dialogues. Learning from the crippling effects of King’s assassination, it becomes clear that there is a need to develop many “Martin Luther Kings.” Such leaders are not developed naturally—they must be systematically educated and trained.

Memphis Sanitation Workers of Today
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw clearly in the struggles of some poor garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee what the Poor People’s Campaign was all about. He saw in the Sanitation Workers a dramatic example of what the historian and activist Vincent Harding called a force capable of “self-liberating actions”—capable of thinking for themselves, speaking for themselves, fighting for themselves, and themselves leading.

Today, we are witnessing the emergence of Sanitation Workers-like fights throughout the country involving every race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. These struggles are not a matter of choice. They are compelled by life-threatening conditions. They represent the arising “new and unsettling force” for social change and the abolition of poverty because they have little or no stake in to the socio-economic status quo. Today’s “low paid, laid off, and locked out,” old and young, are organizing and fighting for their lives on every front. Some of these gatherings of the young and old include:

  • Direct Action Welfare Group (DAWG)
    West Virginia (state-wide)
  • Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE)
    Brooklyn, New York
  • Jesus People Against Pollution
    Columbia, Mississippi
  • The National Welfare Rights Union & The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
    Detroit, Michigan
  • Unified Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


For more information about the author, the Poverty Initiative, please visit their website,, and Facebook page, You can also check out their brochure.
Photo by Benjamin Stangland.


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “To Chart Our Course for the Future,” address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, South Carolina, 1967, 2-3 (King Library and Archives, King Center, Atlanta).


photo of Willie BaptistWillie Baptist is a formerly homeless father who came out of the Watts uprisings and the Black Student Movement. Working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers, Willie has 40 years of experience organizing amongst the poor including with the National Union of the Homeless, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and many other networks. Willie serves as the Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and is the Coordinator of the Poverty Scholars Program. Willie Baptist and Jan Rehmann have recently published a book with the Teachers College Press called Pedagogy of the Poor (see

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