Tennesseans Respond: Poor People’s March of 1968

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

WARNING: Some of the archival documents featured in this post contain racist language and beliefs. 

When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, he and fellow activists were planning the Poor People’s March, which comprised a tent city (called “Resurrection City”) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. intended to influence Congress and put our nation on the path to achieving economic justice: the idea that each person should be free “to engage creatively in the unlimited work beyond economics, that of the mind and the spirit.” The march occurred under the larger umbrella of the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) created in December 1967 to address issues that particularly impacted impoverished communities, such as access to healthcare, affordable housing, and living wages. Thousands of people–from all different backgrounds–participated in the march and tent city from May 12 through mid-June.

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Demonstrators on the National Mall. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection, George Mason University. Photo © SEPS

During this time, Tennesseans wrote to Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and expressed their views on the protest. Gore’s reply respected the people’s right to protest and “petition their government.” He agreed to meet with any and all Tennesseans among the marchers, and promised he would “give careful consideration to their requests.”

This response from Gore surely upset many of the citizens who wrote to him. Most of the constituent letters housed in the Gore’s Senate Papers shared negative and racist views of the Poor People’s March. Common beliefs from these people insisted that the marchers disgraced the country, were “lazy no good parasites,” and were going to take away rights from the majority (white Americans). Despite the diversity of the marchers, many of Gore’s constituents targeted black people in these letters. One letter stated, “I feel that this country will eventually be taken over if not already by the negro race….as a white person I am disgusted with our country.” Below is a representative sample of the letters opposed to the Poor People’s March. (Click each image to view larger)

There were a few letters from Tennesseans that sympathized with the march’s cause, and urged their representatives to support actions that would help poor Americans. Loren Houtman from Greenesville, Tennessee wrote letters to both Senator Howard Baker and President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 25, 1968 (Gore was copied on these letters). She was particularly concerned with hunger in schools, especially after watching a CBS television program earlier in the week. While the opposition saw the marchers as a “disgrace” to the United States, people like Houtman thought outrage should be directed toward the need for such a protest in the first place. She stated, “We should hang our heads in shame for allowing hunger to exist in our wealthy nation!”

Charles Johnson, of Knoxville, agreed with this sentiment in his letter to Senator Gore dated May 22. He wrote, “It seems that this great nation, wealthy beyond the dreams of history, can do better for its poor than it has done in the past.” Johnson believed in increased funding for food stamp programs, Head Start, Model Cities, and other Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) projects. Below are the letters from Houtman and Johnson. (Click each image to view larger)

The Poor People’s March resulted in a few improvements for school lunches, food stamps, and the Head Start program, but, ultimately, many of the movement’s leaders considered it a failure.

Today, 50 years later, there has been a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. At the time of this blog’s posting, there were demonstrations being held across the nation, including Nashville. You can read more about the current movement in this article from The Nation.

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