The Poor People’s Campaign then and now
by Chardonnay Beaver
In 1967, after fighting against Jim Crow segregation and winning many civil rights victories for Black and Brown Americans, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, called for a “revolution of values” in America.
The Poor People’s Campaign marks Dr. King’s philosophical shift from civil rights to human rights — demanding a new consciousness amid the threat of war, poverty, racial discrimination, and white supremacy. This inclusive fusion movement would unite all races through their commonality of struggle, to create solutions that would revolutionize American values.
In June 1968, an assembly of poor, impacted communities were to be gathered in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Poor People’s Campaign March. However, in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Poor People’s Campaign was continued under the leadership of Mrs. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Fifty years later, in 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival continued Dr. King’s legacy. Now, branches in over 30 U.S. states are active participants in this national call for a moral revival — including Washington.
This is a four-part series about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival through the lens of the Washington State chapter. This article — the first in the series — shares the history of the PPC and the current organizers who are reviving the movement.
The use of the word “poor” in American society is a taboo that reflects shame and humiliation. To be “poor” in America has often been equated with laziness and irresponsibility. Though America is labeled as “one of the richest countries in the world,” 140 million people in America represent the poor or low-income. Thus, to accredit the wealth of this country to the work of 1% of the population is a miscalculation of the tireless contribution of our educators, waiters, and essential workers.
Socioeconomic disparities can be seen in the time it takes Washington State residents to pay their taxes. According to All in For Washington, it takes two months for those who earn less than $21,000 a year to obtain the earnings for their annual taxes; it takes only nine days for those who earn more than $507,000 a year to do the same.
Thus, Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) strives to create a stage for those silenced in the margins of American society. The genesis of WAPPC follows the legacy of the first Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) and the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival.
The campaign denounces the hegemonic notion that poor people are “the problem.” Rather, poverty and greed is “the problem,” and impacted communities are carrying the burden that socioeconomic structures and immoral principles the U.S. continues to uphold.
Then: Up Until 1968
Meet Claude Burfect
Claude Burfect, the first King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) vice president, Vietnam War veteran, and lifelong activist and advocate, has been answering the call of justice nearly his whole life. He was only 11 years old when Emmett Till’s mom put him in Jet Magazine; he’d cried.
“I’ve been on this earth for 80 years now, and I keep asking myself, ‘How do we fix this?’” Burfect said.
Burfect grew up under Jim Crow Laws in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he did “not [realize] Jim Crow was a law.” He was the youngest of four children. His mother worked as a housemaid for two white families and earned only $18 a week, or less than $230 in today’s economy. Burfect and his siblings, like many of their neighborhood peers, worked from an early age.
“That’s how we survived through it all. At 12 years old, I was a busboy. Times were hard, but we made it through,” Burfect said.
When Burfect was in 10th grade, a civil rights attorney named Earl Amedee and Burfect’s uncle Rev. Dr. Percy Murphy Griffin — a Black civil rights activist from Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana — partnered to encourage youth voter registration. Discriminatory voting laws such as literacy tests were disproportionately preventing Blacks from registering to vote; through voter mobilization efforts, Burfect and his peers successfully taught elders in their community how to pass their literacy tests — and his passion for civil rights was sparked.
In 1960, Burfect enrolled at Southern University and A&M College, a historically Black college located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) — a coalition that began to team up with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) — and shortly thereafter joined the NAACP and the Southern Christan Leadership Conference (SCLC).
“When I joined CORE, I became more active in demonstrations,” Burfect said. Under segregation, Black patrons could spend their earnings at segregated establishments but were denied the right to eat at the dining counter, access decent restrooms, and receive equal customer care. Youth and young adults participated in nonviolent direct action in response. During one demonstration, Burfect was hit by a police officer on the left side of his head, fracturing his skull.
“We could spend $10 and $15, which was a lot of money back then, but we could not sit at the counters to eat — and we were tired too,” he said. “It was things like that that caused a lot of demonstrations.”
Burfect also participated in the Freedom Rides, launched by CORE. Along the way, he met a young demonstrator from Alabama named John Lewis, who would later become a U.S. representative and voting rights pioneer. Burfect also traveled from Louisiana to Washington, D.C., using the Green Book and attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He said it was “one of the most inspirational events that I have ever attended.”
A year later, as Burfect was preparing to enter his junior year of college, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. When he returned, he had to reacclimate himself back into society. He relocated from Louisiana to Seattle’s Central District and joined the workforce at Boeing. Although the Pacific Northwest presented more job opportunities compared to the South, Burfect said he didn’t see opportunities for advancement because of the lack of Blacks in leadership roles.
“After working 4 years at Boeing, it wasn’t for me,” he said.
Around that time, Burfect learned about the Poor People’s Campaign and Dr. King’s mobilizing efforts, in preparation for their march in June 1968.
“It was a big movement dealing with poor people in this country … it wasn’t about poor Black folks; it was about poor folks period,” he said. “I was going to attend the Poor People’s Campaign [Assembly in 1968], but at that time, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and that took the luster from the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Yet, under the leadership of SCLC’s new president Ralph Abernathy, the campaign continued. In May 1968, on Mother’s Day, Corretta Scott King and thousands of women gathered in Washington, D.C., as the first wave of demonstrators. Temporary settlements of tents and shacks were built on the National Mall the following day — which they named Resurrection City. Demonstrators camped at Resurrection City for over one month and visited various federal agencies to protest economic injustice. Although the campaign made small waves of progress, Abernathy felt they were insufficient.
“When Dr. King was killed, it seemed like a lot of stuff died at that time … I saw no difference in the South and in the North,” said Burfect.
Meet Dorothy Van Soest
Dorothy Van Soest is an educator, novelist, white lesbian woman, former dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work, and member of the Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) coordinating committee. She has committed her life to nearly eight decades of education and service.
Born in a small, low-populated town in Northern Minnesota during the 1940s, Van Soest was raised in a working class family where white Christian nationalist values constructed their close-knit community’s moral and social beliefs.
“Family life revolved around the church — Sunday mornings and evenings, Wednesday evenings, youth group on Fridays, and prayers and Bible reading before meals,” she said. “My young mind took [it all] in, but didn’t understand the church’s distorted moral narratives.”
Gender-based messaging and restrictions clouded Van Soest’s consciousness. As a child, Van Soest was told she could not attend college because she was a girl; she was instructed at a young age to decide who her husband would be and the number of children she would birth. She wrestled with living up to a “good girl” persona — adhering to the morals taught by her evangelical upbringing — but she yearned to rebel against these principles. As a result, she was often labeled “the problem child” in her family.
Yet Van Soest recognized early on that such teachings had the potential for harm, such as when she and her family watched the June 1953 Rosenburg execution. In the controversial case, a U.S. couple was convicted and executed for conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
“I was taught ‘thou shalt not kill,’ the first commandment, right? ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and here my parents were watching a couple being killed for, I did not understand what,” Van Soest said.
Concurrently, Van Soest witnessed subtle glimpses into worlds beyond her own. On the other side of her town’s train tracks resided a community of low-income white migrant miners and laborers that fled their countries during World War II — as well Native American reservations in surrounding areas.
“Even in a little bubble, I got glimpses of difference, and it bothered me,” Van Soest said. “If you ask me why it bothered me, I cannot tell you. That’s a question I’d like to know the answer to before I die — why it seemed to bother me and not anybody else in my family.”
In 1960, Van Soest moved to Chicago for college. It was there she intentionally explored a world outside of her small town. Four years later, she graduated, then began teaching English in South Side Chicago’s public schools; she quickly began to witness the racial and socioeconomic disparities within the redlined neighborhoods.
“It overwhelmed me, and it broke my heart and it changed me forever,” Van Soest said. “About the same time, Dr. King came to Chicago to protest the poor living conditions, lead in the paint, and [housing] restrictions.”
In 1965, Dr. King and his family moved to one Chicago slum to more closely engage with poor and low-income Black families impacted by redlining. The following year, according to Stanford University, Dr. King and SCLC “announced a Chicago Freedom Movement” — “a campaign that marked the expansion of their civil rights activities from the South to northern cities.”
Historically, this era represented a groundbreaking turning point in Dr. King’s philosophy and American politics.The civil rights movement had triumphed with the passing of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, the Vietnam War was underway, the Watts Riots were happening in California, and poverty in urban areas had become increasingly alarming.
“[The mid-1960s] did feel like the need of the world,” Van Soest said. “We had a war that everybody was getting killed in and nobody wanted. People were protesting against it. We had the civil rights movement, where people were trying to get the right to vote. People were rising up and saying ‘no more.’”
Immediately after college, Van Soest married a minister-in-training — an act she felt fulfilled the “good girl” narrative she was told to follow as a child. She eventually transitioned to teaching at Head Start — a nationally-funded public preschool program established by the Kennedy-Johnson administration to support children of low-income families.
During home site visits, Van Soest witnessed the insufficient living conditions and malnutrition her Black students were subjected to. She recalled that one of her Head Start students missed class; she later discovered that he had died due to an apartment building fire.
“He was a little boy with a bloated stomach, like you would see in poor countries,” she recalled. “The kids would take the food that we had, and they would stuff it in their pockets to take it home. We kept giving them more food.”
In 1967, after living in Chicago for seven years, Van Soest and her now ex-husband moved to the South Bronx. He pursued an internship at a local church, while she continued her career as an educator. They resided in a neighborhood where the majority of the community was on welfare, and Van Soest once again witnessed tremendous educational disparities when she began teaching at her neighborhood elementary school.
“The school had 2,000 students, [but] the building was built for 1,000 students,” Van Soest said.
During her first two years, there were teacher strikes over the community control movement in neighborhood schools, and the issue quickly fell on racial lines. The Black teachers formed an African American teacher’s association separate from the teacher’s union, who were anti-community control because it potentially compromised their job security.
For Van Soest, community control was a great idea. Parallel with the values of the PPC, “the people most impacted have the solution in their lived experience,” Van Soest said.
After holding class at a local church, Van Soest received a call from the superintendent who requested that she step in as the acting principal of the school. Uncertain about her capabilities at the time, she considered the option. That evening, a colleague — who Van Soest described as abusive towards his students — called her and discouraged her from taking the position. “[He said] the Blacks have it in for us whites,” Van Soest remembered.
Unaware of the superintendent’s race, and in complete disgust of her colleague, Van Soest immediately notified the superintendent that she would accept the role.
Shortly thereafter, Van Soest discovered one of her students lived in her apartment building, and that this student’s parents were members of an active pro-Black organization called the Black Panther Party (BPP). Amid her time as acting principal, the local BPP members would operate as building security, provide breakfast and snacks to students, and more.
Several years later, Van Soest would earn her social work certification and begin working in Native American reservations in Northern Minnesota. Poverty in those rural areas reminded her of what she saw in Chicago and the Bronx.
“I would describe [the call for a change] a gut feeling,” said Van Soest. “When I get that feeling in my gut, I don’t have to think anymore; I just do the next right thing. The moment comes, and I just know.”
Meet Susan Partnow
Susan Partnow is a mother, women’s rights advocate, founder of Families for Peace, and member of Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) coordinating committee.
Partnow grew up in Los Angeles, California — one of three girls in a Jewish-Russian immigrant family. Her father was a poor orphan who dropped out of school in eighth grade. He believed that one must pull themselves up by their bootstraps — and early on, Partnow recalled the way capitalism was treasured in her household.
“He told me, more or less, that it was all about the almighty dollar,” Partnow said. “And I said ‘What! Do you mean money is more important than people?’”
As a child, Partnow watched the Adolf Eichmann trial of 1961, where the Holocaust perpetrator was captured in Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial. Those horrific images of the Holocaust would be forever ingrained in her mind.
“All of my friends growing up were the first-born children of the Holocaust and their parents all had the tatoos on their arms. In a way, I was the stepdaughter of the Holocaust,” Partnow said. She cites her Jewish faith as a major influence on her moral values.
“Tikkun Olam, [means to] ‘repair the world’; that is the primary call of what you are to do, in my understanding, as a good person,” she explained.
In 1964, Partnow enrolled at University of California (UC) Berkeley. Simultaneously, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was in full effect, sparking a fight against the prohibition of free speech on campus.
“It was an amazing, explosive time and I was right in the middle of it,” Partnow said.
In fact, Partnow’s mother came to San Francisco to march with her and her peers during one of their demonstrations. Partnow recalled looking out her dorm window at numerous federal reserve trucks parked on campus and practicing nonviolent direct action by walking up to soldiers with flowers. With the threat of the Vietnam War, Partnow and her peers actively sought ways to use their voices for change.
“Every male person was under threat of being drafted into a war that we knew was totally unjust and hideous and racist and violent,” Partnow said.
While at UC Berkeley, between 1964 and 1968, Partnow remembers the assassination of Dr. King and how it transformed what she and her peers hoped the movement for nonviolence could become.
“[The assassination of Dr. King] felt like another stone on his gravestone,” Partnow said.
During the 1970s, Partnow relocated to Europe and formed an intimate women’s group to raise consciousness about gender roles. There were markers in her life that led her to question the narratives represented about how women and girls should show up — like getting married young to resist public perception or having to wear a girdle and undergarment as a young girl because you shouldn’t shake, Partnow said.
Partnow, who loved to include her children in her advocacy work, lobbied on issues concerning women, children, and education. Recalling the difficulty of attending meetings and the unwelcoming responses she’d receive when bringing her toddler, she started Families for Peace in the early ʼ80s, because she wanted a space where parents could include their children in advocacy work.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, mothers like Partnow have proudly used their identities to push forward social movements. In 1988, Partnow participated in the Citizens’ Train — a group of over 100 individuals from Portland and Seattle who traveled from Washington to Washington, D.C., to lobby for various social issues.
Meet Ian Lorenz
Ian Lorenz is a queer college student, envirnomentalist, and former state campaign organizer representing the Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC). Lorenz also has over a decade of experience working in the restaurant industry. Although his ties to the WAPPC, and mobilization, are fairly new, Lorenz represents a generation who is willing to pick-up the unfinished work of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) in a nuanced way.
“The Poor People’s Campaign has always centered the voices of the people most impacted and really worked to pass the mic, so that when a stage is built, the people that speak from the stage are people that are impacted by injustice,” said Lorenz. “It’s less transactional and more about deeper ties … everybody in; nobody out.”
The premise behind the PPC is one reimagined by Dr. King and SCLC through an approach called a “fusion movement,” which could unite poor and impacted communities across the country. This sentiment was made true to Lorenz when he began to follow the relaunch of the PPC in 2018, including a 2019 Presidential Forum they hosted, which included nine of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
In June 2020, Lorenz had lost his job after working for a decade in the restaurant industry, which shut down due to the pandemic. That year, the PPC held their Mass Poor People’s Assembly and March on Washington via a two-hour digital gathering. Its agenda included testifiers who represented the 140 million of Americans in poverty in the United States.
“I was one of the 2.7 million people who tuned in for that virtual assembly, and from there, I got increasingly more involved,” Lorenz said.
Nonetheless, compared to others, Lorenz felt he was minimally impacted by the issues the PPC addresses. He was uncertain of the space he should occupy — so he started by attending virtual WAPPC gatherings every month. He then started drafting his own “call scripts,” or phone scripts, which are often used in grassroot organizing to craft cohesive messaging for contacting local or national officials. Inspired by the PPC, Lorenz used his call scripts to contact Washington State legislators, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and Sen. Patty Murray.
On December 13, 2021, in an attempt to demand the U.S. Congress to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan and voting rights protections, the National PPC and affiliates gathered in Washington, D.C., for their “Get it Done in 2021” rally. The WAPPC offered Lorenz the opportunity to attend the rally as a state organizer, on behalf of the chapter. This rally included nonviolent direct action — including the risk of arrest. Lorenz accepted the offer and was on the next flight to Washington, D.C.
“I felt like I was a part of something and a valued part,” he said.
At the Get it Done in 2021 rally, each state organizer delivered a one-minute speech on 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House. Collectively, their choice to travel to Washington, D.C., share their impactful experiences, and agree to risk arrest represented a sense of camaraderie.
“The pieces that drew me in most were the conversations I had along the sides of the events with the other organizers … we all had this experience together,” Lorenz said.
Lorenz eventually applied for the State Campaign Organizer position at WAPPC and was hired. Each campaign organizer mobilized their state’s most impacted communities to attend the in-person Mass Poor Peoples and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington. Under the guidance of PPC cochair Rev. William Barber II, Lorenz received mentorship that encouraged him to carry the movement forward.
In preparation for the June 18 assembly, Lorenz organized a team of 12 Washington State delegates, whose stories represented some of the state’s most impacted communities. After workshopping their testimonies over numerous virtual meetings, one of the 12 delegates was selected to share their testimony at the assembly. Through this process, Lorenz witnessed as others became the narrators of their own stories and transformed oppressive narratives into something better.
“The change you seek to create in the world is also a change that will happen on you,” Lorenz said. “And I found that to be very true.”
Now: 2018 to June 18, 2022
Fifty years after the inaugural Poor People’s Campaign March was slated to happen in June 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival continued the work in 2018. Over the course of four years, they organized branches in 30 states, then invited 140 million of America’s poor and impacted to assemble in Washington, D.C. The Mass Poor Peoples’ and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March in June 2022 was a two-day event that paid homage to the groundbreaking legacy of Dr. King and the SCLC.
One day before the mass march, the PPC Communal Dinner was held in Freedom Plaza — which was renamed in 1988 to honor Dr. King, who wrote his “I Have A Dream” speech within close proximity to the plaza. This site continues to be used for social and civic organizing. At the Communal Dinner, hundreds of people were served free meals, while cochairs of the campaign Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis spoke.
Shortly following, a group of mobilizers from the dinner led a group to the Lincoln Memorial for the COVID-19 and Poverty Candlelight Vigil. A number of songs were sung and several testifiers from across the country shared their stories of grief. Issues discussed included gun violence in Texas, and Rev. Barber declared, “We haven’t grieved enough.” People of all races, genders, and ages stood together in solidarity crying and comforting each other as the sun set.
The next day, on June 18, Partnow, Van Soest, Burfect, Lorenz, and over 40 others from Washington State gathered for the PPC Moral Assembly and March on Washington. As they stood together in their green-and-white WAPPC shirts, Partnow listened to the stories from testifiers representing over 30 states.
“We could be so much further along … [that moment was] heartbreaking, as well as beautiful,” Partnow recalled.
Washington’s selected testimony came from David Lee, a Seattle University graduate student and first-generation Korean American immigrant. He shared his experience with the recent rise in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes in Washington and across the country.
“I have realized with the rise in Asian hate crimes, that regardless of my parent’s immigration status, they are not safe in the United States,” Lee said during his speech.
Looking ahead towards the midterm elections in November, the Poor People’s Campaign and their events in Washington are a reminder that even poor and impacted communities can be empowered. What’s required may be, in the words of the PPC, to move “forward together, and not one step back!”
The next articles in this series will further explore the stories of those impacted by the issues relevant to the Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) — which includes empowering the 140 million poor and low-income people in America. The issues discussed include, but aren’t limited to: voting rights advocacy; WAPPC mobilizing, organizing, registering, and educating (M.O.R.E) efforts; and ways to get involved with WAPPC.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Emmett Till’s name. This article was updated with the correct spelling on 8/17/2022. The Emerald apologizes for the error.
This story was funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.
Chardonnay Beaver is a multimedia storytelling, influential speaker and writer. Her stories center the lived and historical experiences of minoritized communities in America, in a nuanced way. Her articles has been featured in Crosscut, The Facts Newspaper, The Seattle Medium — to name a few. Chardonnay is a recent graduate of the University of Washington, earning her degree in political science and journalism & public interest communication and minor in diversity studies. To learn more, visit her website.
📸 Featured Image: Demonstrators in the Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., in June 1968. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsca-04302.
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