Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gordon K. Mantler's "Power to the Poor"

Gordon K. Mantler is a Lecturing Fellow and Assistant Director of the Writing Studio in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. He has been an editor of Deliberations, the writing program’s journal of first-year writing published every October, as well as an editor and designer for the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) in Florida and the Greenville News in South Carolina. He received his doctorate in U.S. history from Duke and has won several awards including the first annual Ronald T. and Gayla D. Farrar Media and Civil Rights History Award for the best article on the subject.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974, and reported the following:
In the spring of 1968, a small army of the poor and their allies marched on Washington to demand the federal government’s rededication to the War on Poverty. They pitched a camp called Resurrection City and stayed for weeks, some for even months. And while they did not accomplish many of their stated policy objectives, their efforts captured the nation’s attention and imagination.

The Poor People’s Campaign long has been overshadowed by the death of its architect, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the political turmoil of that year. Yet only in Washington that spring did local, regional, and national activists of so many different backgrounds – from veterans of the labor and southern civil rights movements to activists of the newer Chicano, American Indian, antiwar, and welfare rights struggles – attempt to construct a physical and spiritual community explicitly about justice and poverty that went beyond a one-day rally. By bringing such a diverse array of activists together from across the country, the campaign highlighted how multiracial coalitional politics operated alongside the identity politics of black and Chicano power. But that relationship was messy at times and sometimes exacerbated by other forces.

Page 99 captures well the challenge King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference faced in building such a broad coalition, particularly in reaching activists of Mexican descent. The page starts with King’s appointment of Bernard Lafayette in late 1967 as the primary administrator of the Poor People’s Campaign. King had hoped that Lafayette’s antiwar ties would help them reach a multiracial swath of activists who viewed, as King did, antipoverty and antiwar activism as inextricably linked. Yet other than Maria Varela, who Lafayette knew from his days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he had no real contacts among Mexican Americans. Thus, by January 1968, the campaign had struggled to organize people beyond traditional civil rights circles:
… when announcing their plan to bring three thousand organizers trained in nonviolent protest to Washington, King, Lafayette, and Hosea Williams listed target cities only in the East, Midwest, and South. Although Detroit and Chicago did have Mexican American communities, campaign memoranda on both SCLC staff assignments and supporting organizations included only a handful of nonblack activists such as Grace Mora Newman, a Puerto Rican coordinator of the Fort Hood Three Committee, a Bronx-based antiwar group. Places such as California, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, where the majority of Mexican Americans lived, went unmentioned. When asked about other minorities’ participation in January, King assured the press that, “This is a march of poor people on Washington … Naturally it will be predominately Negro … because the Negro is the poorest of the poor in proportion to his size in the population. But … it will not be an all black march.” Behind the scenes, however, the campaign looked very much all black.
As a result, Lafayette began a concerted effort to reach out beyond SCLC’s comfort zone. This work paid off in the end but only after King’s direct intervention – first by inviting Mexican Americans and others to a historic conference in Atlanta to explain the campaign in detail, and then, ironically, through his assassination in April, which prompted many previous skeptics to join the campaign as a tribute to the slain civil rights leader.
Learn more about the book and author at Gordon K. Mantler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue