January 17, 2022
On January 17, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader, father, husband, advocate, reverend, and activist. We reflect on his philosophical motives, role in the Civil Rights Movement, and ambitions to create a republic of liberated people.
When we consider the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, we gain a deeper understanding of the work involved in moving towards racial equity. The campaign exemplifies how Dr. King saw equity as a societal goal that required collective action. It changed “the nature of social movements and the meaning of protest marches and community mobilization… [and] influenced public policy on federal and local levels” (1968 Poor People’s Campaign, 2018).
As a community of anti-hunger advocates with similar ambitions toward structural change, Maryland Hunger Solutions knows that food justice intersects with low-income Americans’ economic justice and human rights. Each year that we celebrate his life, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the issues in our society and recommit to collective action.
Broadening the Scope of Civil Disobedience
After the hard-fought fight that resulted in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King sought to broaden the public’s scope and definition of civil disobedience.
Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) formed a plan to “focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty” via the Poor People’s Campaign (Poor People’s Campaign, 2018). They saw the campaign as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” (Poor People’s Campaign, 2018). If masses of African Americans and Civil Rights advocates from different places and circumstances could gather, demonstrate, and assert their right to equality, then any diverse collective of people can do the same. Their shared motives are that of economic enfranchisement. His tragic death could not stop what was already in motion as “the civil rights period evolved into an era of human rights crusades” (1968 Poor People’s Campaign, 2018).
Hunger in America: Expansions to Federal Nutrition Programs
The Poor People’s Campaign continued after his death in April 1968 and attracted many participants from Chicanos, indigenous peoples, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and White Appalachians to labor leaders, farmworkers, and activists alike (Smithsonian, 2018). In May 1968, people from all over the country flooded the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and stayed in a temporary settlement of tents. For over a month, they “made daily pilgrimages to various federal agencies to protest and demand economic justice” (Poor People’s Campaign, 2018). The movement’s leader was no longer alive, but the masses of people who gathered in the nation’s capital continued to breathe life into the cause.
A year following the Poor People’s Campaign, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to address malnutrition among low-income mothers and children (Oliveira, & Frazao, 2015). After a smaller pilot implementation and updates to its function, that program evolved into the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) (Oliveira, & Frazao, 2015).
Government agencies responded to the popular discourse of “Hunger in America,” leading to expansions to federal nutrition programs. Additional food programs launched in the 1,000 most food-insecure counties, as identified by the campaign’s objectives, and Congress appropriated $243 million to revamp the school lunch program (Smithsonian, 2018). Changes were implemented and set the stage for what we see today in program adequacy and efficiency.
Anti-Hunger Advocates Champion to #EndHungerNow
In response to the shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-hunger advocates championed measures that would support people experiencing hunger.
They adapted and expanded their SNAP outreach and enrollment efforts; advocated for SNAP emergency allotments and child nutrition waivers as additional resources for families in need and encouraged state legislators to continue accessing federal dollars for their constituents. Advocates researched the potential these emergency provisions had on systemic hunger to strengthen the function of federal nutrition programs beyond a state of emergency (Maryland Hunger Solutions, 2021).
Now we stand at a threshold to address hunger and the disparities therein with lessons from the last two years. The pandemic is a “crisis-packed situation” leading to an opportunity for change, echoing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (King Jr. 1963).
Equity requires action from all parts of the whole. Not bound by a single day, the work is constant. However, each year this day is a chance to recommit to equity as a societal goal.
1968 Poor People’s Campaign – Challenges and Successes | National Museum of African American History and Culture. (2018). National Museum of African American History& Culture: Smithsonian. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/1968-poor-peoples-campaign-challenges-and-successes
Diamond, A. (2018, April 17). Remembering Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-poor-peoples-campaign-180968742/
Food Insufficiency During COVID-19. (2022, January 10). Food Research & Action Center. https://frac.org/foodinsufficiencycovid19
Poor People’s Campaign. (2018, June 5). The Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/poor-peoples-campaign
Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. (1963). African Studies Center-University of Pennsylvania. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Maryland Hunger Solutions. (2021, September 23). Organizational Letter to Maryland Department of Human Services. Baltimore, MD.
Oliveira, V., & Frazao, E. (2015). The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2015 Edition. In History of the WIC Program: (p. 7). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/46648/15834_fanrr27c_1_.pdf?v=0