After federal troops captured New Orleans in 1862, plantation owners from Louisiana, Mississippi, and various points east of the Sabine River began moving their human property into Confederate-held Texas. By the time the Union captured the Lone Star state on June 2, 1865, more than 150,000 enslaved men, women, and children had endured the move West. Two weeks later, on June 19, Major General Gordon Granger led 2,000 federal troops into Galveston. From the steps of the former Confederate Headquarters at Ashton Villa, he read aloud General Order #3, delivering two-years-late news of the Emancipation Proclamation’s promise of freedom. The next year and for the next hundred years, formerly enslaved people in Texas and many who returned to various parts of the South to find lost families, celebrated “Freedom Day,” a tradition now known as Juneteenth — a celebration of freedom and self-determination that has twice been at the center of evolving social justice movements.
By the mid-twentieth century, celebration of Juneteenth outside of Texas had become less common. But in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), now led by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, drew on the symbolism of Juneteenth to produce a second March on Washington. Branded as “Solidarity Day,” June 19, 1968, became the centerpiece of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The inspiration for the Poor People’s Campaign was found a year earlier, when Marian Wright Edelman brought a congressional delegation that included Senator Robert Kennedy to Marks, Mississippi to see firsthand the ravages of poverty and inequality. Moved to tears at the sight of children with bellies bloated from hunger, Kennedy promised to do more and encouraged Edelman to press Dr. King to put more focus on the issue of poverty. Edelman brought Dr. King to Marks and he was devastated by what he saw. The idea for the Poor People’s campaign was born that very day.
Recognizing that poverty did not discriminate by race, Dr. King immediately reached out to representatives of the Native American and Hispanic communities, as well as poor whites from Appalachia, to join him in a campaign to address the evils of poverty. He sought to build a coalition that would “demand federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programs, and housing for the poor.” Barely one month after his visit to Marks, from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., Dr. King announced the Poor People’s Campaign. “I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Quitman County, the poorest county in the United States,” said Dr. King. “And I tell you I saw hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.”
Dr. King envisioned that the Poor People’s campaign would be fueled by the collective action of various social movements; civil rights and labor, anti-war and religious, southern blacks and Appalachian whites, Puerto Ricans & Native Americans. He was prepared to elevate his tactics to include massive civil disobedience, including the occupation of the National Mall. Less than one month later, before his vision for the Poor People’s Campaign could be realized, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Still reeling from the devastation of loss on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, Coretta Scott King and the SCLC moved forward with the Poor People’s Campaign, including the establishment of Resurrection City, a collection of temporary shelters built along-side the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where some 2,500 mostly poor men, women and children lived for six weeks. In the middle of Resurrection City stood the “Soul Center,” a cultural product of inter-racial coordination between the SCLC, the Highlander Folk Center, and the Smithsonian Institute. There, the residents of Resurrection City received musical entertainment and cultural exchange programs. The organizers also established “Poor People’s University,” which produced seminars, lectures, and workshops designed to prepare participants in the Poor People’s campaign for a heavy schedule of demonstrations and meetings with legislators and agency administrators. Midway through the Poor People’s Campaign, tragedy returned when Sen. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. His widow, Ethel Kennedy, who had participated in the Mother’s Day opening ceremony of the Poor People’s Campaign, made sure his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City.
Because Resurrection City had been inundated by rain and become mud-logged early in the campaign, many chose to live at the nearby Hawthorne School for the duration of the campaign. There, ethnic Mexicans, Appalachian whites, African Americans, and Native Americans lived together, ate together, had fun together, and protested together. Residents of the Hawthorne School led multiple demonstrations all around the city, from the Supreme Court to the White House and beyond. By the end of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Hawthorne School came to be known as “Freedom School.”
On June 19, 1968, more than fifty thousand people gathered to commemorate Juneteenth at the Solidarity Day rally and march on Washington, as they had done five years prior. This time, they demanded that the federal government financially commit to the “War on Poverty” announced by President Johnson four years prior, which they believed had been highjacked by the Vietnam War. They argued, as Dr. King had expressed during his first anti-war march in 1967, that as “bombs in Vietnam explode at home — they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.”
By linking Solidarity Day to Juneteenth, the Poor People’s Campaign connected the emancipation of formerly enslaved people to freedom from the economic oppression for poor people of all colors. Inspired by this symbolism, many people took the spirit of Juneteenth with them and initiated local Juneteenth celebrations across the country. Juneteenth is now celebrated in all but four states.
Perhaps more importantly, in the years following the Poor People’s Campaign, the multi-racial coalition that participated in the event maintained their connections. They ran workshops together, supported each other’s campaigns and adopted techniques learned at Poor People’s University to strengthen their advocacy and organizational development. According to Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander School, Dr. King’s vision initiated “the making of a bottom-up coalition.” Although the Poor People’s Campaign failed to secure most of the financial commitments it sought to achieve, the ultimate success of the event was the development of long-lasting coalitions and the establishment of coalition-based advocacy at the center of modern social justice movements.
During the summer of 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign was re-envisioned as a “National Call for Moral Revival” by Repairers of the Breech and the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. For the last three summers surrounding Juneteenth, they have led a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religion coalition that engages in direct action campaigns to challenge modern perpetuations of the oppression of poverty, systemic racism, and police brutality. This summer, however, their effort is knitted into the blanket of mass protests and demonstrations that have covered the entire nation as social justice allies build new coalitions to protest police brutality and the violence of systemic racism. Now, as in 1865 and in 1968, Juneteenth stands at the epicenter of the freedom struggle.
Myesha Braden serves as Director of Special Justice Initiates at Alliance for Justice.