On February 12, 1968, Martin Luther King and his staff completed the master plan for what they dubbed the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The purpose of the campaign was to mobilize masses of impoverished Americans of all races and regions to descend upon the nation’s capital to “place the problems of the poor at the seat of government” and remain until the government announced substantive measures to address their plight. King was uniquely positioned to lead so bold a challenge to the forces of America’s economic and political status quo. Yet he knew the Poor People’s Campaign would attract to him enemies more powerful than he’d faced before. Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968 — just days before the Poor People’s Campaign was to begin. Was this mere coincidence? Or was there something more at work? A largely forgotten event in American history might reveal an answer.
The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 granted America’s World War I veterans “bonus” pension certificates. However, the certificates could not be redeemed until 1945. As the Great Depression deepened, desperate veterans pleaded for early redemption of their certificates, to no avail. In May of 1932, three hundred frustrated, desperate veterans journeyed to the nation’s capital to demand immediate cash payment. In the next few months thousands of veterans and their families joined them.
By July 1932 some 43,000 “Bonus Marchers,” as they came to be called, had descended on the capital and built more than two dozen camps — the largest with 15,000 people — that they ran with organizational discipline like a bona fide city, digging in for an extended occupation if it came to be necessary.
On July 17 the Bonus Marchers amassed on Capital Hill to await the vote on a hastily crafted congressional bill that would allow early redemption. The legislation was decisively defeated. Congress demanded that the campsites be dismantled, but the bulk of the protestors refused to leave. Tempers flared. On July 28, two veterans were killed during an armed police eviction gone awry. Concerned that there would be more violence, President Herbert Hoover called out the US Army to destroy the camps and forcibly remove the Bonus Marchers from Washington. What followed was a full-fledged military action replete with tanks, infantry and calvary regiments, fixed bayonets and tear gas. By nightfall, hundreds had been injured. A baby and a 12-year old boy later died of their injuries.
Americans throughout the nation were outraged by Hoover’s use of the United States military against its own citizens. That wartime veterans were attacked heightened their anger. Public outrage that the government had turned away the desperate veterans empty-handed forced the federal government, for the first time in US history, to acknowledge that it had a responsibility to care for the welfare of its impoverished veterans, and by extension, all the nation’s poor and vulnerable citizens. With memories of the Bonus Marchers fresh, only three weeks after taking the presidential oath of office in March, 1933 Hoover’s successor, Franklin Roosevelt, created the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide employment for up to 500,000 workers. This signaled a fundamental shift in government policy from the laissez-faire, hands-off economic policies that ruled the day, to policies that were forged with social needs in mind. These policies set the stage for the sweeping social reforms that became the New Deal. (Creation of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, universally known as “the G.I. Bill,” was also a result of the Bonus March, albeit a later one).
Thus, in the long run, the Bonus March resulted in wide-ranging social welfare policies that libertarian politicos and corporate capitalists still rail against eight decades later. A non-exhaustive list of those policies includes greater worker rights and protections, enhanced regulatory market protections, Social Security benefits, extension of unemployment insurance and establishment of the minimum wage, to all of which an overwhelming number of corporate elites and conservative politicians remain opposed.
The actions of the Bonus Marchers resulted in momentous changes in the American political economy and an unprecedented redistribution of wealth in America, despite the fact that they only sought pension checks for a small percentage of the American populace — less than two percent. In contrast, King had exhorted his staff to “… ﬁnd something that is so possible, so achievable, so pure, so simple that even the backlash can’t do much to deny it.” Thus the Poor People’s Campaign had a far broader agenda that was consciously fashioned to appeal to the interests of a much larger constituency: the 28 million or so Americans then living below the poverty line. Its demands included a job for every able-bodied worker; unemployment insurance for all workers in every occupation, including domestics and farmworkers; a fair minimum wage; guaranteed annual income for all Americans; and educational curricula for impoverished adults and children designed to strengthen their self-image and sense of self-worth. He saw the campaign “uniting all races under the commonality of hardship” to forge a new, interracial, class-based movement of poor people. “I’m not only concerned about the black poor,” he said. “I’m concerned about the white poor. I’m concerned about the Puerto Rican poor, the Indian poor. I’m concerned about the Mexican-American poor. We are going to grapple with the problem of poor people.” And like the Bonus Marchers, the Poor People’s Campaign also planned to descend on the nation’s capital and occupy a makeshift “city” until its demands were met.
As far-reaching as the changes were that the Bonus March inspired, it was focused on the interests of a relatively limited constituency. Because those the Poor People’s Campaign sought to attract would come from every race, region and ethnicity, it possessed the possibility of much greater, truly massive participation. For that reason it was conceivable that it could force far greater changes than the Bonus March. One would expect this to have been a matter of deep concern for America’s political and economic elites.
With King’s name recognition — diminished at that point, but still substantial — and the campaign’s shared focus on the interests of the tens of millions of struggling Americans, it had the potential to be the most momentous political gathering in American history. If it was able to catch the imaginations of Americans as the March on Washington had – fully plausible, given that the morality of its quest was no less compelling — the influence that its moral authority and sheer numbers could exert on America’s political economy could cause radical changes in government and immense expense and opportunity costs for industry. Indeed, a successful campaign could actually empower the un-empowered masses in ways that would cause capitalists nightmares.
The indictments King offered of capitalism and the class inequality that bedeviled American society during his travels were considered extremely inflammatory by members of the power elite. To one audience he said, “We’re dealing in a sense with class issues, we’re dealing with the problem between the haves and the have-nots.” He told a New York Times reporter, “In a sense, you could say that we’re involved in a class struggle.” Elsewhere he declared, “we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King was now no longer talking about civil rights; he was talking systemic change, even structural revolution: “I think we must see the great distinction here between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement.” He made it clear that what he advocated was a revolutionary movement and revolutionary action that would “raise certain basic questions about the whole society…. [T]his means a revolution of values” that for him went beyond issues of race. To King that meant, as he said more than once, that “the whole structure of American life must be changed.”
To this end King told his staff that it was time to “forge new tactics which do not depend on government good will, but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.” What he was talking about was “aggressive nonviolence.” He said, “We aren’t going to Washington to beg, we are going to Washington to demand what is ours.” He indicated that he was even willing to engage in “nonviolent sabotage” to shut down the nation’s capital so the needs of the poor would get the full attention of those who held the purse strings and the reins of power. “[O]ur struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he proclaimed. The class nature of the campaign’s aspirations was potentially the greatest internal threat to America’s capitalist order the nation had ever seen.
The actions of the Bonus Marchers ultimately caused major changes that significantly altered America’s social landscape by redistributing wealth through New Deal policies. Although discomforting, those changes did not threaten capitalism per se. But King’s advocacy of forced structural change and economic democracy, if you will, portended a significant limitation of capitalist profits and perquisites and posed a threat of such magnitude that it had to be stopped, for America’s capitalists had no idea how far the Poor People’s Campaign could go and what it might accomplish.
Moreover, King’s call for the striking Memphis sanitation workers to engage in a general city-wide strike two weeks before his death would have compounded the anxiety of politicians and CEO’s that under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign King might call for a national general strike. The prospect of this was extremely daunting to both government and industry because the few non-union general strikes that had occurred in the United States had literally shut down entire cities, costing business millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Undergirding the fear of the Poor People’s Campaign was “Time to Break the Silence,” King’s controversial public confession of his unequivocal opposition to the Vietnam War. In that speech he declared that the war and the widespread poverty in America were both the tragic consequence of capitalist greed and exploitation. He decried “individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America” who “take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” King’s powerful critique went straight to the heart of capitalist society. He proclaimed, “[A]n edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” Thus a successful Poor People’s Campaign with King at the head threatened both the capitalist economic status quo and their profiteering on the war.
As with the Halliburton Corporation in the Iraq War, much of corporate America was raking in billions of revenue dollars from the Vietnam War. The war was draining the US Treasury to the tune of $20-25 billion per year by 1968, yet the largest corporations were extremely profitable. For instance, in 1966 three of the four largest US firms operating in Vietnam ranked in the top ten most profitable of the 400 American firms doing business abroad. The year before that the Caterpillar Corporation announced record profits that its annual report attributed to its business connected to the war in Vietnam.
That corporate capitalists and elite bankers and lawyers understood the war in terms of the economic interests and new product markets that Vietnam represented is seen in the roster of President Lyndon Johnson’s major foreign policy advisors. The roster included several of the most powerful attorneys and corporate heads in America, including the lead counsel for both General Motors and the wealthy, politically influential du Pont family; several senior partners of prestigious “white shoe” Wall Street corporate law firms; and perhaps the most powerful of all Wall Street lawyers, the legendary John J. MCCloy. Johnson’s appointees to a propaganda committee that was charged with garnering public support for the war included presidents and directors of the largest American multi-national banks and directors of the largest American corporations. Johnson’s most influential advisor was a corporate lawyer who was so intimately involved in the workings of Lehman Brothers, then one of the most powerful investment banking firms, that he was considered an “honorary partner.”
Thus the political platform and exposure that the Poor People’s Campaign could offer King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his anti-capitalist declaration of class warfare gave those invested in maintaining the economic and political status quo more than enough reason to neutralize the threat that King presented. Indeed, several of his top lieutenants voiced strong doubts about its feasibility. With King gone, the Poor People’s Campaign would surely be a an ineffective protest, if not a complete failure.* Is this whyMartin Luther King was killed as the Campaign was gearing to start?
There remain numerous questions to be answered about the circumstances of King’s death. Still, many observers summarily reject the notion that his death was the result of a conspiracy of subjects known or unknown. Yet in December, 1999, after hearing the testimony of over 70 witnesses, including the owner of a restaurant close to the murder scene who admitted his complicity in the plot to kill King, an interracial jury in Shelby, Tennessee unanimously concluded that King’s murder was the result of a conspiracy of unnamed “governmental agencies.” A June, 2000 report of the United States Department of Justice disputed the verdict as flawed and based on numerous factual inaccuracies. It recommended that there be no further investigation unless new corroborated evidence is presented. However, the family of Martin Luther King remains convinced that he was the victim of a conspiracy of persons unknown, as do his closest aides. And, again, many questions remain unanswered.
The public will probably never conclusively know whether King’s assassination was indeed the work of conspirators and if it was related to fear of an effective Poor People’s Campaign. Yet we do know that the specter of the economic radical that Martin Luther King had become, standing at the head of a successful Poor People’s Campaign of many hundreds of thousands, demanding sweeping restructuring of the political economy, posed a threat to the federal government and the capitalist class of potentially enormous magnitude.
Thus it might be said that King’s April 4, 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War was his death warrant, and that his determination that America realize true economic democracy for all signed it. And one can plausibly conclude as well that it was protectors of the unjust status quo who executed it.
*This article has been updated.