The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 often overshadows what may be his most radical crusade. The Poor People’s Campaign in the spring of 1968 was organized by a coalition of predominately Black and Brown organizers working across the color line.
Gordon Mantler is the associate director of the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University and the author of “Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice 1960-74." He notes how King used the issue of poverty to unite people who had long been separated by race and region.
“What struck me about…the Chicano Movement activists who went to Washington that spring was they really hadn’t seen or interacted at all with poor whites,” Mantler said on The State of Things. “And so that was one of the great lessons for a lot of young Chicano activists -- they go to Washington and they spend a lot of time with folks from West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and realize they have a lot of the same concerns.”
Movement building through coalition work was difficult, and many of the organizers struggled with this type of collaboration at the time. But this coalition building is very much alive at present, especially across the state of North Carolina.
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, gave his perspective on the purpose of modern attempts at coalition building.
“What I’m hearing as we move around the state…is an understanding that we are all interconnected and, as Dr. King said, inextricably bound,” Barber said. “Justice is when you get African Americans to see that the people voting against our interests -- and Latinos interests, and the LGBT and environmentalists’ community’s interests -- they are all voting against ‘just us.'"
Baldemar Valasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said those born disadvantaged can sometimes have an upper hand.
“When you build community around the issues that impact their lives on a daily basis and you show them a direction in which there’s promise of getting out of that, poor people have an advantage that other people don’t have: and that’s that we have nothing to lose,” he said.
Gordon Mantler is holding a talk on his book at 7 p.m. tonight at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.