King called upon Black churches to challenge the status quo and to change the pervasively oppressive social order. Racism, economic and labor exploitation and war were named by King as the three greatest evils of American society and they needed to be fully eradicated to resolve social disparity.
King's idea of integration was complex; he struggled to eliminate or reduce poverty by linking political power, wealth, and poverty...."King's unfinished search for more radical reforms in America may have been the central reason he was killed."..."Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both assassinated," Allen (1983: 322) writes, "at precisely the point at which they began working actively and consciously against the racism and exploitation generated by the American capitalist system..." (Jalata, 2003, p. 67)
The value of understanding the issue of class had been one that was a significant aspect of social reform research, since the post war period. One of the dominant themes in the social work research movement was discovering the connection that poverty or class had to life opportunity and choice. It was therefore the period just prior to MLK jr.'s decision to expand the civil rights movement to include broad social justice when the social sciences were also focused on class as a prominent factor in good and/or bad social choices.
Researchers involved in the "class vs. caste" debates explored the intersections of class and race, and some argued that socioeconomic status was a more powerful determinant of cultural norms than racial status (Johnson, 1934; Davis & Havighurst, 1958; Dollard, 1937; Drake & Clayton, 1946; Powdermaker, 1939). (Curran, 2003, p. 15)
Some of the social science research actually furthered misunderstandings that fueled civil rights movement claims, that the dominant culture was conceptually skewed in their understanding of race and social oppression. While on the other hand the social science research also stressed how important an expansion of understanding regarding the effects class and hence poverty had on social opportunity and therefore representation. What the researchers discovered is that class and hence poverty was so essential in the development of so many issues of the social order that it and the institutions that formed it was absolutely essential to a full understanding of the human condition. (Curran, 2003, p. 15)
This movement in research created mountains of opinion and fact laden expressions of the need to expand social movements to address class as an essential formative change force. (Curran, 2003, p. 15) it also seems that the social movement influenced many people and nations to make decisive changes in policy and representation for the development of it. In a quote by the American reformer Alinsky, a contemporary to MLK the sentiment of full representation is essential in the development of change.
It is highly undemocratic to plan, govern, arrange, and impose programs without communication with the people for whom they are designed; it is also disastrously impractical.... I do not believe that democracy can survive except as a formality if the ordinary citizen's role is limited to voting, and if he is incapable of initiative or all possibility of influencing the political, social and economic structures that surround him (Alinsky 1969: 216-218). (Howe & Pidwell, 2002, p. 113)
MLK jr. would likely have fully agreed with this sentiment, as the Poor People's Campaign was specifically designed to reiterate this point by bringing the poor directly to the doorstep of the government so that their voice would not get lost. The voice of the poor was essential tot the development of laws, policy and programs that would serve their needs to get a hand up rather than a hand out, and the Poor People's Campaign was a first step in this realization, even though it was marked with failure its ideas were a sound recognition of the need for real representation of the people being served by social programs.
Many argue that the Poor People's Campaign was a marked failure in its ability to make lasting effects toward social change and representation. Yet, it is also clear that the concepts that King and the SCLC furthered were entrenched in the social movements of the day. It is also clear that the movement has not reached its goals, as social, economic disparity is actually growing at an alarming rate, currently. The literature surrounding the Poor People's Campaign does have a tendency to get bogged down in the details of the Campaign itself and the strategic failure of it, even though it was clearly a situational failure that could have been added to by the number of people who volunteered, directly resulting from King's death. Interestingly there is a clear sense that the Campaign may have been a thriving success, had King been present to work his human persuasion magic.
Curran, L. (2003). The Culture of Race, Class, and Poverty: The Emergence of a Cultural Discourse in Early Cold War Social Work. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 30(3), 15.
Hon, L.C. (1997). To Redeem the Soul of America: Public Relations and the Civil Rights Movement. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(3), 163-212.