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Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Note: Transcriptions are intended to reproduce the source document accurately, adhering to the exact wording and punctuation of the original. In general, errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, have been neither corrected nor indicated by sic.

Press conference announcing the Poor People's Campaign

[4 December 1967]
[Atlanta, Ga.]

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I’m going to read an opening statement which I think [tape interrupted][. . .] and at the end we made a decision which I wish to announce today. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. But we hope with growing confidence that our campaign in Washington will receive at first a sympathetic understanding across our nation followed by dramatic expansion of nonviolent demonstrations in Washington and simultaneous protests elsewhere. In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.

We have now begun preparations for the Washington campaign. Our staff soon will be taking new assignments to organize people to go to Washington from ten key cities and five rural areas. This will be no mere one-day march in Washington but a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor. We are sending [tape interrupted][. . .] America is at a crossroads of history and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage. It is impossible to underestimate the crisis we face in America. The stability of a civilization, the potential of free government, and the simple honor of men are at stake. Those who serve in the human rights movement, including our Southern Christian Leadership Conference, are keenly aware of the increasing bitterness and despair and frustration that threaten the worst chaos, hatred, and violence any nation has ever encountered. In a sense, we are already at war with and among ourselves. Affluent Americans are locked in the suburbs of physical comfort and mental insecurity. Poor Americans are locked inside ghettos of material privation and spiritual debilitation. And all of us can almost feel the presence of a kind of social insanity which could lead to national ruin. The true responsibility for the existence of these deplorable conditions lies ultimately with the larger society and much of the immediate responsibility for removing the injustices can be laid directly at the door of the federal government.

This is the institution which has the power to act, the resources to tap, and the duty to [respond][tape interrupted][. . .] that a clear majority in America asking for the very things which we will demand in Washington. We have learned from hard and bitter experience in our movement that our government does not move to correct a problem involving race until it is confronted directly and dramatically. It required a Selma before the fundamental right to vote was written into the federal statutes. It took a Birmingham before the government moved to open doors of public accommodations to all human beings. What we now need is a new kind of Selma or Birmingham to dramatize the economic plight of the Negro and compel the government to act. We intend to channelize the smoldering rage and frustration [tape interrupted][. . .] our new Washington movement. We also look for participation by representatives of the millions of non-Negro poor: Indians, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites, and others. And we shall welcome assistance from all Americans of good will. And so we have decided to go to Washington and use any means of legitimate, nonviolent protest necessary to move our nation and our government on a new course of social, economic, and political reform.

As I said before, the power [tape interrupted][. . .] the first of April as a target date. We want to spend three solid months organizing the whole nation around this matter of jobs and income and mobilizing for our move toward Washington. So we feel that the first of April will probably be the time that we will move.

[Question:] Can you predict what numbers you might expect?
[King:] Well, it’s difficult to say what numbers we will end up with. We are going to escalate it as we move. We plan to start off with a basic three thousand people. Two hundred people from each of these areas will be mobilized, trained in the discipline of nonviolence and the whole idea of jail without bail, and enlightened on everything that we are seeking to do on this question of jobs and income.

[Question:] What will they [be doing?]?
[King:] Now these three thousand people will be a core group but that’s just the beginning. We are going right through various processes until we culminate with a massive move on Washington and that will go way up into the thousands. So it starts out with the three thousand moving on up.

[Question:] What will this initial group do exactly in the way of demonstrations?
[King:] We will choose certain target areas or targets in Washington and demonstrate around them. If we are driven away, we will continue to go back. But as far as naming these targets [tape interrupted][. . .] as in federal buildings and the Congress of the United States itself.

[Question:] Might they include the White House?
[King:] Oh this is a very great possibility, yes.

[Question:] Dr. King, it seems from what you have said here that this movement seems to have a more militant tone about it. Would you say that this is going to be a more militant movement than ever before?
[King:] I would say that this will be a move that will be consciously designed to develop massive dislocation. I think this is absolutely necessary at this point. It will be massive dislocation without destroying life or property and we’ve found through our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve the problem. We’ve got to massively confront the power structure. So this is a move to dramatize the situation, channelize the very legitimate and understandable rage of the ghetto and we know we can’t do it with something weak. It has to be something strong, dramatic, and attention-getting.

[Question:] You had resistance in Birmingham and also in Selma. Do you expect resistance in Washington and if so, what type?
[King:] Well I’m sure with the various methods that they are now using to break up demonstrations that we’ll face some of that, I imagine. We don’t know what will happen. They may try to run us out, they did it with the bonus marches you remember years ago. The army may try to run us out. We are prepared for any of this kind of resistance. We don’t go in with the feeling that there won’t be an attempt to block it because we will be engaging in civil disobedience, there’s no doubt about that.

[Question:] Dr. King where will the marchers stay physically? Do you intend to have a camp out at night or will they have a place to stay at night or will they be camping on some sort of federal ground at night or [word inaudible]?
[King:] Well, there will be various, once they get to Washington, although we can’t give any real details of the plans, but we’ll probably have people walking to Washington from ten different areas at the same time: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. All of these areas. [tape interrupted][. . .] every night, and these things will have to be well planned. The logistics job will be a very big one. Once we get to Washington, we will probably have to deal with the whole question of tent-ins in the city of Washington, tents in various points around the city of Washington. [tape interrupted][. . .]

[Question:] [. . .] presumably to prevent political embarrassment to the president, President Johnson. Is there [tape interrupted][. . .]
[King:] No, this is no attempt to embarrass the president in an election [tape interrupted][. . .]

Question:] What effect do you think the demonstrations will have on President Johnson’s popularity?
[King:] Well I have no idea. I would hope that the president would respond positively and creatively. And as I said the very people who are asking for these things are his constituents, we won’t be adding anything new. The urban coalition is made up of most of the mayors of our major cities, including Republican mayors who voted for Mr. Johnson. They didn’t vote for Mr. Goldwater. Mr. McKeldin of Baltimore voted for him, he’s in the urban coalition and Mr. Lindsey of New York. It’s made up of outstanding businessmen who voted for him. So the things we’re asking for we have a consensus for and it wouldn’t hurt the president one iota politically to respond to this. So here’s an opportunity to respond to something that is politically expedient as well as morally sound and I would hope that the president would see it just this way.

[Question:] Do you think that if Senator McCarthy were in the White House it would be necessary to have such a protest march in Washington?
[King:] Well I can’t say that any one man can move in every area and provide all of the responses necessary without some kind of pressure. So I wouldn’t say that if Mr. McCarthy were in the White House it wouldn’t be necessary to bring about some pressure in order to get certain reforms. I might say on the other hand that Mr. McCarthy is an extremely able man, a man of great social vision and a great sense of history and I’m sure that he would have, he already has, great concern about urban problems, the economic problem that we face. And he has the wisdom to see that our urban domestic problems are greatly related to the tragically unjust war in Vietnam.

[Question:] Would you support McCarthy for president?
[King:] I don’t support candidates. That has not been my policy, to endorse candidates. We have a position in SCLC, as a non-partisan organization, that we don’t support candidates. So that the only thing I can say at this point is that I think that his candidacy is a good one in the sense that it will provide a national dialogue necessary on the war in Vietnam and I think it will help many people who have deep frustrations and are almost moving toward despair find a channel of expression that they so desperately need.

[Question:] Would you vote for Senator McCarthy?
[King:] I can’t say that at this point. I won’t have a chance in the primaries because he certainly won’t be in the primary in the state of Georgia where I happen to reside.

[Question:] Dr. King, might not this march on Washington create a backlash in an election year that might work to the detriment of the civil rights movement?
[King:] I don’t think so. There again, we will be nonviolent. This is going to be nonviolent dislocation. If it ever reached the point that it even led to violence on the part of the demonstrators themselves, I would call it off. So that this is a nonviolent attempt to bring these issues out into the open. Many of the things that we are asking for have already been asked for by so many others. And I don’t think there’s any backlash possibility. The only thing is we’ve got to face the fact that we have a very recalcitrant Congress that’s behind the times. It’s not even responding to its constituency and this is what we’ve got to arouse. We’ve got to get the nation moving once more around a kind of coalition of conscience that will make change possible.

[Question:] What makes you think that these kinds of tactics will move this recalcitrant Congress, as you [call?] it?
[King:] Well they’ve done it before, these tactics have done it before and this is all we have to go on. We are following the dictates of our conscience on the one hand but certain precedents that we have behind us on the other hand.

[Question:] But you’ve never, you’ve never carried it to the Congress itself, to Washington before.
[King:] Well, we’ve carried it to Washington in a lobbying sense not in a powerful direct action sense. Now we were told when we went into Birmingham that Congress wouldn’t move. In fact I was told that we couldn’t get a public accommodations bill because of the coalition between right wing northern Republicans and southern Dixiecrats. But we did break that coalition. We were told the same thing when we went to Selma that we couldn’t get a voting rights bill that year but we did get it and it’s the same Congress. Now the difference, as you say, is that we are going directly to Congress this time with direct action as well as lobbying and we feel that this is the thing we have to do now and we hope that Congress will respond to our demands. If we fail, it will be tragic for the nation and really won’t be a failure for us, it will be a failure for America and I predict that we will sink into darker nights of chaos and social disruption. It may well mean that the curtain of doom will fall on American civilization and I have no doubt that we can’t live through another one or two summers like last summer.

Question:] Dr. King you’re almost certain to get a great deal of support from anti-war people, peace forces in Washington, in this effort. Will this be the first major merger, do you see it, of people who are opposed to the war and also a civil rights force working toward a common end?
[King:] We’ve got to get the people who are in civil rights and the people who are in peace to dramatize both of these issues in a very significant way. But the campaign will be around jobs or income. This will be something of the slogan, “jobs or income.” And in the midst of this naturally many other things will come out, including the war in Vietnam and all of the damage that we feel that it is doing to us domestically.

[Question:] Well won’t it mean though that people going to protest about jobs and so forth are also in a sense protesting the war in Vietnam?
[King:] In a sense, there’s no doubt about that because–

[Question:] [When in other words if] someone is legitimately interested in civil rights and possibly doesn’t agree with you on Vietnam, then they would tend to be discouraged from even being [words inaudible]?
[King:] Oh, not at all, not at all. We would welcome the support of everybody [tape interrupted][. . .]

[Question:] [words inaudible] Do you think it’s possible to organize a massive demonstration of this kind of, I take it, these very people, and still somehow keep them nonviolent? Don’t you think there’s a very good chance it might get out of hand at all?
[King:] Well let me say three things on that. I would be the first one to admit that to act at this time is risky. That is, for the nonviolent movement to act is risky, but not to act represents moral irresponsibility. So I feel that we’ve got to do this. The second point that I would like to bring out on this particular point is that we are going to spend three months training people in the discipline of nonviolence. This is why we are taking a little time instead of just moving out as we could do right now. But first we want to take two or three months to train people in the discipline of nonviolence and we want to get a small group--and when I say small that is a two hundred core group in each city--to start with that could lead and guide other people as they assemble in larger numbers. Now the third point is this: We have found that people, however angry and bitter, will respond to nonviolence if it’s militant enough and if it’s really doing something. Last summer, when we had our open housing marches in Chicago, we had the Black Stone Rangers marching with us every day and that was the worst gang in Chicago. They were as nonviolent as anybody, they responded to the nonviolent discipline as well as anybody. When we were in the Birmingham movement, we certainly saw the same thing. In fact, every day when we had our workshops we collected knives and everything else, they turned them in [tape interrupted]

[Question:] [words inaudible] has been working in Washington for quite some long time, walking around in the community there. Do you anticipate that he might participate with you in this program?
[King:] I don’t have any idea how Stokely would respond to this kind of program. I plan though to talk with all groups, all levels of leadership in all of the communities that we are planning to visit and I certainly plan to talk with the SNCC workers and the SNCC staff. And I can’t say at this point how they will respond but we would certainly want the response of everybody and we would want the support of everybody and we would demand that everybody adhere to the discipline of nonviolence. We are not going to demand that everybody believe in nonviolence as a way of life, but to participate in the demonstrations certainly our key group of people would have to be committed to nonviolence as a tactic, as a strategy for social change.

[Question:] Do you have a quota? How many people are you going to try to get at the most?
[King:] I’ll just say thousands and thousands without getting in the numbers game because we don’t know. We’ll see as we get into it, we’ll see the response, but I would say thousands and thousands of people before this campaign is over and as I said we plan to dislocate until something is done about our problem. And it will not only be a demonstration in Washington. Once we begin moving there we plan to see and develop simultaneous demonstrations in all of these cities and that may take many forms including school boycotts and everything that we can do nonviolently to really dramatize this whole problem. Thank you.