skip to main content

Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / June 

1968 MLK Poor People’s Campaign activist shares stories and highlights the necessity of the 2018 Campaign reboot as it unfolds

June 28, 2018

Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

As Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign is being rebooted, Wornie Reed, an original campaign activist and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech says, “the Poor People’s Campaign [of 1968] fell short of its goal to win significant anti-poverty legislation. It did, however, mark a change of the civil rights movement from advocating a platform of only racial equality to one that incorporated interracial class issues and economic goals.”

He supports the new campaign and adds “importantly, the new Poor People’s Campaign is addressing several issues beyond poverty.”

Reed was involved with the 1968 Campaign working to drum up support in northern New Jersey bringing people to Washington. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Reed regularly visited Washington to support the activities at Resurrection City, the hastily constructed shantytown that held thousands of protesting residents. He was also among the men and women lying in the street across Independence Avenue on Solidarity Day 1968.

Video of Wornie Reed talking about Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign plans: https://www.dropbox.com/s/eb3i34jy0v40rcs/Wornie_Reed_PoorPeoplesCampaign.mp4?dl=0  

Quoting Reed

On stories from the 1968 Campaign

“While most know that MLK was assassinated in Memphis while participating in the Memphis garbage workers’ strike, too few know about King’s major activity during this time — the Poor People’s Campaign.”

“The Poor People’s Campaign was one of Martin Luther King’s most important projects.”

“The Campaign of 1968 was organized into three phases. The first was to construct a shantytown, to become known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Resurrection City, to house up to 3,000 participants. The next phase was to begin public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty in this country. These demonstrations would become so massive as to disrupt the daily business of Washington, D.C. The third and final phase of the campaign was to launch a nationwide boycott of major industries and shopping areas to prompt business leaders to pressure Congress into meeting the demands of the campaign.”

“Resurrection City was a self-managing town, with duties any small town would have. For example, one Sunday morning I shed my IBM suit and worked the garbage truck.”

“We had meetings with residents, and we had meetings with others. I happened to participate in a meeting with suburban white women coming to see what they could do. At the time we hoped we had pushed some of them into feminism as Reverend James Bevel led our discussion about how the problem was not at Resurrection City but on the other side of their beds — the white men who were their husbands.”

“Solidarity Day saw over 100,000 people come to a rally on the National Mall near Resurrection City. There were two major demonstrations — one at the Supreme Court and the other on Independence Avenue. I participated in the demonstration on Independence Avenue, which appeared to be a symbolic act in concert with the stated intentions of Martin Luther King Jr. — to close down D.C. if our complaints were ignored. We stopped traffic by laying in the street at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.”

“To my chagrin, I was not arrested, although I was dragged from the street three times by police officers. Seventy-five people were arrested, even though there were only about 50 of us when the demonstration started. Of course, many others came and joined in.”

On his thoughts on today’s campaign:

“Reverend Barber and his colleagues have a huge task, made all the more difficult by a long-time lack of concern about the growing poverty in this country.”

“The United States has a severe problem with poverty. In May the United Nations published a report that counted 40 million Americans as living in poverty and 18.5 million living in extreme poverty.”

“The poverty rate is worse now than when Martin Luther King Jr. was threatening to close down Washington until efforts were made to reduce poverty in this the wealthiest country in the world. The poverty rate for all ages in the United States in 2016 was about the same as in 1968; however, for children, the poverty rate is higher now than it was in 1968.”

“The leadership of Reverend Barber and others is much needed if for no other reason than to keep things from getting worse. In addition to denying the facts of the UN Report, the Trump administration is looking to make deep cuts in food stamps.”

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

It is important to Reed that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are repeated often, thus here are some additional quotes he has shared for members of the media to use about the Poor People’s Campaign.

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out … This is the way I’m going.”

“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 … 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.”

“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.”

About Reed

Reed is the director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. He is an expert on race, ethnic health disparities, social policy, and criminal justice, and his research focus is on criminal justice, discrimination, health care, and labor. He was interviewed and quoted by HuffPost during the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That story was just one of a dozen other interviews he offered this past April. Read his full bio here.

Schedule an interview

Contact Ceci Leonard at ceciliae@vt.edu, 540-357-2500 or Bill Foy at fwill55@vt.edu, 540-231-8719. Virginia Tech's television and radio studio can broadcast live HD audio and video to networks, news agencies, and affiliates.

Contacts: