In early 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders continued plans for a Poor People’s Campaign. It would take place in the spring in Washington, D.C. The poor and those in solidarity with them would take up temporary residence and march peacefully on the Capitol and advocate for substantial anti-poverty legislation from Congress. They would demand jobs, healthcare, and decent housing.
People set up a camp on the Washington Mall and called it Resurrection City. Jesse Jackson gave his famous "I Am Somebody" speech there. But King was assassinated in the weeks leading up to the campaign and Robert Kennedy was assassinated during it. Disheartened and discouraged, people drifted away from the campaign, their dreams deferred.
What if MLK had lived to lead the campaign with his insight and eloquence? What if Bobby Kennedy had lived to support it with his doggedness and political will? Would the United States be a place where 1 out of 5 children, around 15.5 million, are in poverty and where close to 50 million people are without health insurance?
Something happened at my Title I elementary school that brought those questions to mind. A guest speaker, dressed in a hardhat and reflective vest, stood before my classroom of second-graders, his white skin and Boston accent in contrast with the black and brown children using southern drawls and Hispanic accents in front of him. He was telling them about his work as a miner in western Canada.
"What were you doing on Christmas Day?" he asked. The students waved their hands in the air, buzzing with answers.
"Well, do you know what I was doing on Christmas Day?" he continued. He pointed to a picture on the SMART Board of a giant truck at the expansive mine. "I was working ... driving that truck all day long."
A soft-spoken little girl named Maria suddenly spoke up and said, "My mom had to work on Christmas Day, too."
The Poor People’s Campaign has largely been forgotten. Yet here was an echo of it in my small, inner-city classroom. The experiences of a working class white man and a brown child from the home of immigrant parents were connected, similar and familiar.
The struggle against poverty has seen some serious reverses since King’s time. The income gap between rich and poor is the highest it’s been since being first measured in 1967. The number of children living in poverty has risen steadily since then.
Public schools seem to me to be great places to see the dream of the Poor People's Campaign come true. Most of the 'institutions' in our country are built on our choices to be with people who look like us, think like us, and act like us. Change rarely comes through institutions like these — especially changes that involve good jobs, good health care, and good housing for the poor, changes that involve economic justice. In my opinion, public schools are at their best when they are built on people who don't look alike, think alike, or act alike, because we are more likely to change when we are with people who are different from us than if we are with people who are the same as us.
So it was with the miner and our students. They were different, but in their “friendship” they found a common experience, an experience that could lead them to work together for changes in our economic system — changes that could make the dream of the Poor People's Campaign come true.
Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.