Press conference announcing the Poor People's Campaign
[4 December 1967]
Ladies and gentlemen of the press, Im 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 nations 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 Americas 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
nations 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
[Question:] Can you predict what numbers you
[King:] Well, its 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
[Question:] What will they [be doing?]?
[King:] Now these three thousand people will be a core group
but thats 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 weve found through
our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve
the problem. Weve 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
cant 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 Im sure with the various methods that
they are now using to break up demonstrations that well face
some of that, I imagine. We dont 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 dont go in with the feeling
that there wont be an attempt to block it because we will
be engaging in civil disobedience, theres 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 cant give any real details of the plans, but well
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 Johnsons 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
wont 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 didnt vote for Mr.
Goldwater. Mr. McKeldin of Baltimore voted for him, hes in
the urban coalition and Mr. Lindsey of New York. Its made
up of outstanding businessmen who voted for him. So the things were
asking for we have a consensus for and it wouldnt hurt the
president one iota politically to respond to this. So heres
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 cant say that any one man can move in
every area and provide all of the responses necessary without some
kind of pressure. So I wouldnt say that if Mr. McCarthy were
in the White House it wouldnt 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 Im 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
[King:] I dont support candidates. That has not been
my policy, to endorse candidates. We have a position in SCLC, as
a non-partisan organization, that we dont 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
[Question:] Would you vote for Senator McCarthy?
[King:] I cant say that at this point. I wont
have a chance in the primaries because he certainly wont 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 dont 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 dont think theres any backlash possibility. The
only thing is weve got to face the fact that we have a very
recalcitrant Congress thats behind the times. Its not
even responding to its constituency and this is what weve
got to arouse. Weve 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?]
[King:] Well theyve 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 youve never, youve
never carried it to the Congress itself, to Washington before.
[King:] Well, weve 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 wouldnt move. In fact
I was told that we couldnt 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 couldnt
get a voting rights bill that year but we did get it and its
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 wont 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 cant live through another one
or two summers like last summer.
Question:] Dr. King youre 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:] Weve 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 wont 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, theres no doubt about that because
[Question:] [When in other words if]
someone is legitimately interested in civil rights and possibly
doesnt 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 its possible to organize a massive demonstration of
this kind of, I take it, these very people, and still somehow keep
them nonviolent? Dont you think theres 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 weve 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 its
militant enough and if its 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 dont 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 cant 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:] Ill just say thousands and thousands without
getting in the numbers game because we dont know. Well
see as we get into it, well 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.