Building the Beloved Community: 40 Years After MLK's Poor People's Campaign

By Onleilove Alston 6-16-2008

As I attended Pentecost 2008 I was reminded that Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign is celebrating its 40th anniversary. On Friday, Mary Nelson (Board Member of CCDA) and I facilitated a workshop on "Building the Beloved Community." Building the Beloved Community was one of the central messages of Dr. King's ministry. The Poor People's Campaign of 1968 serves as a tangible example of what the Beloved Community looks like when lived out. In November of 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC met to discuss what direction the movement should go in after the passage of civil rights legislation and the urban riots of the previous summer. SCLC decided to launch the Poor People's Campaign in response to the economic injustice that plagued many Americans of all races. The Poor People's Campaign was to be a widespread campaign of civil disobedience. The poor from across America would come to Washington, D.C. to challenge the government to pass an anti-poverty package that would include a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income and increased construction of low-income housing.

The Poor People's Campaign included poor whites from Appalachia, poor African-Americans from rural and urban areas, poor Hispanics and Native Americans. This group all came together to build Resurrection City which became the headquarters of the campaign. This "city" consisted of shacks built by conference participants and included a school, an arts and cultural program, and a medical clinic staffed by volunteer doctors. In this community African-Americans shared gospel music with Appalachian whites who in turn shared their bluegrass music. This Resurrection City was a place of Beloved Community. Sadly, the goals of the Poor People's Campaign were not accomplished due to the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy, bad press, and days of constant rain.

The unfinished work of the Poor People's Campaign is now our responsibility. For forty years we have been wandering in the wilderness of economic injustice but if we can unite regardless of our differences to create the Beloved Community we can get to the promised land of economic equality.

One tangible way you can honor the legacy of the Poor People's Campaign is by joining Sojourners in its Vote out Poverty campaign. Participants of Pentecost 2008 are being trained to return home to mobilize their churches, campuses and communities to "Vote out Poverty." Building the Beloved Community is necessary to doing this work.

Onleilove Alston is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and serves Sojourners in the Policy and Organizing department as a Beatitudes Fellow. She is a student in the dual M.Div/MSW program at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. In NYC she organizes with the Poverty Initiative and New York Faith & Justice.

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