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. Indeed, 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 offer an answer.
The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 granted America’s World War I veterans $1,000 “bonus” pension certificates to the veterans (the equivalent of $18,000 today). However, the certificates were not redeemable until 1945. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, with its shockingly high unemployment and lack of public assistance, desperate veterans requested their bonuses immediately. Their pleas went unanswered. Finally, in May 1932, three hundred determined veterans journeyed to the nation’s capital to demand immediate cash redemption of their bonus certificates, which for many, if not most, meant the difference between hunger and full bellies, homelessness and shelter. 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 bonus redemption. However, the legislation was decisively defeated. Congress then immediately 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 twelve-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 it was wartime veterans that were attacked heightened their anger. The public indignation at the federal government’s callous turning away the desperate veterans empty-handed forced the 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.
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, all of which an overwhelming number of corporate elites and conservative politicians remain vociferously opposed to. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, universally known as “the G.I. Bill,” although not passed until 1994, can also be considered a result of the Bonus March.
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 (Southern politicians had successfully excluded the latter category from New Deal legislation); a fair minimum wage; and a guaranteed minimum annual income for all Americans. Not coincidentally, these are all democratic socialist demands; King had already declared his democratic socialist sensibilities to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues.
King’s demands also included educational curricula for impoverished adults and children designed to address the psycho-emotional needs of the impoverished that would 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 significantly, 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 had inspired, it was focused on the interests of a relatively limited constituency. But because the changes the Poor People’s Campaign potentially impacted Americans from every race, region and ethnicity, it possessed the possibility of much more massive participation than the Bonus March and, thus, could force far greater changes than the Bonus March. This possibility would certainly 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, the Poor People’s Campaign 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 costs for industry. Indeed, a successful Campaign could actually empower the unempowered 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 undoubtedly considered extremely threatening and 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 economic landscape. Although discomforting, those changes did not threaten capitalism per se. But King’s advocacy of forced structural change and economic democracy portended a significant redistribution of wealth and posed a threat to capitalist wealth and power 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 even call for a national general strike. This prospect was extremely daunting to both government and industry because the non-union general strikes that had occurred in 1919 and 1946 had shut down entire cities, costing business millions of dollars in lost revenue. The economic damage that a national general strike could cause was unfathomable.
Exacerbating 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 imperialist 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, the spectre of a successful Poor People’s Campaign with King at the head pose a considerable threat to both the capitalist economic status quo and their profiteering on the war.
As with the approximately $39.5 billion the Halliburton Corporation garnered from the Iraq War, in the 1960’s much of corporate America was raking in billions of dollars in revenue from the Vietnam War. The war was draining the US Treasury to the tune of $20–25 billion per year by 1968, much of it pouring back into the coffers of the nation’s largest corporations. 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 around the world. The year before, the Caterpillar Corporation had announced record profits that its annual report openly 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 multinational 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.”
For these reasons, the political platform and popular exposure that the Poor People’s Campaign could offer King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his anticapitalist 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. No one involved in the planning or leadership of the Campaign was as effective or as radical as he. Indeed, some, like Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, had serious misgivings about it, although their concerns were logistical rather than ideological (after King’s death Jackson picked up the torch to become “mayor” of the Campaign’s tent city). It was not hard for the powers that be to conclude that with King gone, the Poor People’s Campaign would be a manageable protest, if not a failure. These presented powerfully compelling reasons for them to silence Martin Luther King before he could mount his ultimate threat to their power and continued exploitation of America’s masses.
There remain numerous questions to be answered about the circumstances of King’s death. Understandably, those aligned with America’s status quo reject as fiction the notion that his death was the result of any sort of conspiracy. Yet in December 1999, after poring through the testimony of over seventy 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, which it identified as the work of unnamed “governmental agencies.” Unsurprisingly, a June 2000 report of the United States Department of Justice disputed the verdict as flawed and based on what it deemed “factual inaccuracies.” That report recommended that there be no further investigation unless newly “corroborated” evidence was presented. However, like many observers, the family of Martin Luther King remains convinced that he was the victim of a conspiracy of persons unknown, including the United States government, as do his closest aides. And, again, many questions remain unanswered.
The public will probably never know conclusively whether King’s assassination was indeed the work of conspirators in fear of an effective Poor People’s Campaign. Yet we do know that the specter of the more public economic radical that Martin Luther King had become, standing at the head of a successful Poor People’s Campaign of hundreds of thousands of needy, disgruntled Americans demanding sweeping restructuring of the political economy posed a threat to the federal government and the capitalist class of potentially enormous magnitude unequalled in the history of this nation. The fact that King had begun to more publicly avow his specifically democratic socialist sentiments made him all the more dangerous to the forces of capitalist injustice.
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 caused the dread signature to be affixed upon it. From there it is a small step to conclude that it was the dedicated guardians of America’s unjust status quo who, devoid of all conscience and care for the common good, ensured that the warrant for the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was summarily executed.
Obery Hendricks, Jr., Ph.D., teaches religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of the award-winning, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Radical Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Distorted (Doubleday, 2006) and Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith (Beacon, July 2021). He is a member of the ICS Advisory Board.