Forty-four years ago, the Poor People's Campaign came to Washington, D. C. to demand jobs, health care, and decent housing. The protestors arrived on May 12, 1968 and set up a shantytown encampment called Resurrection City on the National Mall, which lasted for six weeks. The campaign picked up where Martin Luther King, Jr. left off before his assassination in April.
King had put his life on the line defending some of the most exploited laborers in the nation who literally did the dirty work of others. "Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth," he stated.
The Civil Rights icon was speaking to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME) in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee on March 18,1968. He would be assassinated there within weeks.
The current Republican presidential candidates' characterizations of poor people indicate their failure to grasp what King died for. They have sullied the true meaning of the phrase "the dignity of work," which King eloquently articulated on behalf of the strikers.
This is in marked contrast to recent progress made across the country. In New York, for example, Domestic Workers United–with the support of employers, unions, clergy, and community organizations–led a six-year battle that exemplifies what the dignity of work really looks like in action. Their victory, and ours, was the passage of the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the nation in 2010. The law grants the basic protections and benefits to nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers, which most other workers gained in the 1930s.
The problem is not, nor has it ever been, that poor people don't value work, but that their employers and others devalue their humanity. Those Memphis sanitation workers engaged in work that could be humiliating and harmful to their health. They hauled around 50-gallon drums of slimy garbage hoisted on their backs, until the mid-1960s when the city relented to providing pushcarts and trucks. African-American men faced racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, and the assignment of work. On rainy days, they were sent home without pay, whereas white men got credit on the clock. They were forced to work overtime-on demand and without pay. According to historians Michael Honey and Steve Estes: "the wages paid to black sanitation workers were so low that 40% of them still qualified for welfare even though most had a second job." After years of failed efforts to redress these issues, the workers went on strike on February 12, 1968.
Garbage collectors engaged in work essential to the public health of the city, but they were not treated with commensurate respect. King recognizing this, shined a national spotlight on the sanitation workers and advanced his Poor People's Campaign. He expanded the focus of the civil rights movement from desegregation of public accommodations to the expansion of economic justice. A crowd of over 10,000 people packed into a local church like sardines to hear the young minister give a mostly improvised speech on March 18. "You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages." King indicted the indignity of the treatment of the workers, challenging the legitimacy of a system that castigated them for being poor.
During the primary season, Republicans have attacked the notion that it is the condition of poverty that should be despised, opting to shame poor people instead. Newt Gingrich advocated putting poor children to work as janitors in schools because they "have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works." Mitt Romney proposed sending welfare mothers of two year olds into the workforce, while defending the virtue of his own wife who stayed at home to take care of his children. For poor women he subscribes to a different standard: "I want the individuals to have the dignity of work," even if it costs the government more money in day care expenses, he argued.
Clearly these conservatives do not understand, as King did, that poor people are often gainfully employed, frequently in multiple jobs, and typically concentrated in the least desirable positions, at the lowest pay. Regardless of their employment status, they must be poor because they lack a work ethic. In the minds of conservatives, "the dignity of work" is a foreign idea among the "have-nots," which "the haves" must rigorously inculcate and enforce.
King did not live to see the resolution of the strike. He was shot to death on April 4, at the Lorraine Motel. But in the shadow of this catastrophe, the sanitation workers won an important victory. On April 16, the mayor agreed to give the workers a fifteen percent raise, to ban racial discrimination in hiring, and made other concessions to due process for filing grievances and allowing for union representation.
The Poor People's Campaign in D. C. reached a peak with 50,000 marchers by the time the protests ended in June. But it did not go far enough as the nation grew weary of civil disobedience and was disheartened by another assassination, of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Yet King's words live on–even as they fall on many deaf ears. "All labor has dignity."
Tera W. Hunter is a professor of History at Princeton University.