In remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who at the age of 39 was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, the Hawaii Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition and the “Hawaii Needs a Raise Coalition” partners are planning a “People’s Walk” on April 4, 2014 beginning at 3:30pm

There will be a moment of silence and statewide, the church bells will ring at 6:01pm, the time Dr. King was assassinated.

In 1967, King embarked on what would be his last crusade. Encouraged by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the “Great Society legislative package”, with the help of our own Tom Gill, U.S. Representative (D.HI).

This legislative package brought into fruition the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the resulting Office of Economic Opportunity (which is responsible for Head Start, Job Corps, Community Action Program and VISTA — Volunteers In Service To America), Medicare, Medicaid, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, among others.

But after passage of Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights” — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power. “True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began organizing a national campaign against poverty. “The Poor People’s Campaign” was an effort to gain economic justice for people of all colors, genders, young & old, gay & straight, in the United States.

However, before the completion of the “Great Society” the Johnson Administration turned its full attention to the war in Vietnam.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy asked Marian Wright Edelman “To tell Dr. King to bring the poor people to Washington to make hunger and poverty visible since the country’s attention had turned to the Vietnam War and put poverty and hunger on the back burner.”

Thus, The Poor People’s Campaign was to inaugurate as a new phase of civil rights extending the struggle for racial equality to the cause of economic justice for all of America’s poor. In his last months of his life, King crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington.

The campaign was met with hostility from the start. The administration read the campaign as a potential siege on Washington. Congressmen openly called for the censure of any other congressmen who proposed meeting with the campaign’s officials. The Washington Post demeaned him; writing that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

In 1967, King spoke out against the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Time magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”

King spoke on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech primarily concerns the Memphis Sanitation Strike. King calls for unity, “The Power of Economic Withdrawal”, and nonviolent protest, while challenging the United States to live up to its ideals.

“We are asking you tonight to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy Wonder Bread. Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kinda redistribute that pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies, and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.”

King continued, “Now not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves in SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we’re doing, put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis”.

By the end of the 43 minute speech there was no doubt why the power structure wanted to do away with him. At 6:01 pm April 4, 1968, in less than 24 hours, from the time of the speech, while campaigning for black sanitary workers in Memphis, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

In spite of the hole in her heart, not long after that fateful day, Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy decided to move ahead with the campaign. The next month, thousands of demonstrators gathered at the National Mall demanding federal action to alleviate poverty as SCLC leaders, joined by the National Welfare Rights Organization, lobbied Congress to introduce an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would include $30 billion for the creation of employment programs and low-income housing and a guaranteed minimum annual income for all Americans.

Now, 46 years later, we find that the United States is still in need of an Economic Bill of Rights. Hawaii is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. While most states set income tax thresholds high enough to exempt from taxes a family of three where the employed person works full-time at minimum wage, seven states do require such a family to pay: Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, and Oregon. We are in desperate need of a minimum wage raise, as well as affordable housing.

Though less prominent than the Vietnam War protests of the late 60s and less successful than the Civil Rights movement of the early 50’s & 60s, the Poor People’s Campaign evinced a widespread commitment to ending poverty in America and deserves a place in the public memory.

While we in Honolulu will not walk to Washington, D.C., we will walk to the Hawaii State Capitol and make our wishes and issues known.

MarshaRose Joyner
President Emeritus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition Hawaii