Grassroots Voices, Memory, and the Poor People's Campaign

by Gordon K. Mantler, Duke University

Historian Gordon Mantler.

On May 17, 1968, Gloria Arellanes boarded a chartered Greyhound bus at Will Rogers Memorial Park in South-Central Los Angeles, ready to make the nearly 3,000-mile journey to Washington, D.C. Arellanes, at age 19, had never been to the nation's capital. She had met very few Chicana or Chicano activists outside of her immediate world in East Los Angeles and El Monte, California. She had heard about, but never seen anyone beaten by the police. Nor had she seen white folks so poor that their children did not have shoes. But this all began to change when she heard the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision for a new multiracial alliance of the poor. Although King did not live to see the Poor People's Campaign, his dream of a new March on Washington came to fruition - and Arellanes and many of her fellow activists responded. For her, the few weeks she spent among the poor and their allies in Washington became a turning point. "I always told people, I learned more about people on that march than ever. I saw so many things, and observed so many things," she recalled, an experience that changed her life permanently. During the next several years, Arellanes became an increasingly sophisticated member of the Chicano movement, in large part due to the folks that she met in Washington, with whom she ate, stood in line, and demonstrated. From land rights activists and students from New Mexico and Texas to Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales and the Denver-based Crusade for Justice, Chicano participants in the campaign earned her respect and affection - and inspired her emergence as a leader, first in the Los Angeles-based Brown Berets youth organization, and then more generally as a leading voice of Chicana feminist nationalism.

Gloria Arellanes' experience during the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 was not unusual. Whether they went for months, weeks, or just a day or two, many marchers left Washington enlightened, if not transformed. Yet journalists then and scholars since ignore the experiences of Gloria Arellanes and hundreds of others, and instead dismiss the campaign as inconsequential or even destructive, calling it everything from a "positive embarrassment" and "a fiasco" to - in the words of SCLC's Bill Rutherford - the "Little Bighorn of the civil rights movement." Indeed, the campaign did not achieve what King had set out to do in December 1967, when he first unveiled his new crusade. Calling on the nation to rededicate itself to the War on Poverty, King envisioned building nothing less than a multiracial, nonviolent coalition of the poor and its allies, one which would transform fully the struggle for civil rights into one for human rights. To do so, the plan was to dramatize the plight of poverty through peaceful action and rhetoric, and therefore restore the credibility of non-violent strategy in social justice organizing. The campaign, however, did not reinvigorate non-violent strategy. It did not immediately produce a national, multiracial alliance of the poor. And it did not extract a renewed commitment from the federal government to the War on Poverty. If scholars acknowledge the campaign at all, they focus on why it failed, citing a disorganized leadership incapable of filling the vacuum left by King's death, an FBI-coordinated "dirty tricks" campaign designed to subvert it, interethnic squabbling, poor weather and muddy conditions, and a white middle class and Congress increasingly uncomfortable with the campaign's class-based message. Undoubtedly, each of these arguments has some validity.

Yet all of these interpretations rely heavily on the contemporary reports of a mainstream media seemingly obsessed with the campaign's potential for conflict, from interethnic squabbling to outright violence. In fact, scholars have done little more than parrot their journalistic counterparts who judged the campaign solely on whether it achieved certain stated policy goals laid out by SCLC officials. As if keeping score for a basketball game, journalists spoke in terms of winners and losers and success and failure. But I believe that to view the Poor People's Campaign - and social movements in general - through such narrow binaries is as misleading as judging American history through a black-white lens. If the media does not capture the utter complexity of this pivotal moment of the 1960s, and they rarely do, then the historian needs to be more creative. And one part of that process is to seek those grassroots voices seemingly erased from the historical record.

While the more than a dozen archives that I have explored hint at something more complicated, I am convinced that one must look beyond such sources to fully capture the complexity of the Poor People's Campaign. If we expand our scope through the use of oral histories, the campaign provides a fascinating and instructive window into the ideological and practical challenges of anti-poverty coalition-building in the 1960s. It helps the historian investigate the unintended consequences of the campaign's interethnic organizing. It exposes the media's extraordinary power to "frame" social movements by offering such a stark contrast to journalists' often superficial and narrow coverage. And consequently, oral history helps us challenge the so-called master, or traditional, narratives that persist in the interpretation of the black freedom struggle, the Chicano movement, and the era's other social movements.

Today, I will focus mostly on the campaign's impact on people of Mexican descent, whose poignant experiences had been disregarded by nearly all media reports. But through the careful use of more than thirty oral history interviews, mostly conducted by myself, these lost voices have begun to be recovered. For two months during the height of the campaign, people of Mexican descent lived and interacted daily with African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, poor whites, and each other. These interactions became key building blocks for the Chicano movement, increasing its sophistication and strength by building and deepening relationships among activists. It empowered individuals, complicated activists' own analyses, and strengthened intra-regional networks. And as a result, the interethnic efforts of the campaign helped set the table for the intra-ethnic cooperation that would sustain such Chicano movement flashpoints as the 1969 Youth Liberation Conference in Denver and the 1970 Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles.

Although King had included Spanish-speaking people from the campaign's very first announcement, he and his aides in the SCLC did not know how to mobilize - or even contact - most activists of Mexican descent. For the first two months of 1968, King's aides scoured the country for ethnic Mexican participation, often relying on third parties such as the American Friends Service Committee to make contact. And despite widespread respect for King and civil rights efforts in general, many ethnic Mexicans remained wary of the campaign's structure, goals, and rhetoric. According to my interview with José Angel Gutíerrez, a founder of the Mexican American Youth Organization in San Antonio, he and his fellow activists were interested but assumed that the campaign had not been designed for them. "Is this another black-white thing, or are we involved?" he asked. That question was only answered to their satisfaction after King invited activists to Atlanta to discuss the upcoming campaign.

The so-called Minority Group Conference was just one day at a small motel, but in many ways, it proved to be one of the triumphs - yet most forgotten aspects - of King's last weeks and of the campaign itself. In what Jesse Jackson called an "exciting but tense" twelve hours, activists from several dozen organizations gathered on more or less equal terms to discuss the merits of King's proposed campaign and what exactly, as a unified group, they wanted to achieve. Almost every sort of social movement organization imaginable was represented in the room, from civil rights and student groups to labor, peace, religious, and welfare rights organizations. The emerging Chicano movement was represented by about a dozen male activists, including Gonzales, Gutiérrez, New Mexican land rights activist Reies López Tijerina, Bert Corona of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), and Baldemar Velásquez, founder of the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). For King and his aides, the conference provided a unique moment to hear the concerns that other ethnic minorities brought to the table and their often-different solutions to inequality. For the activists present, it gave them the chance to not only meet King, but to use his celebrity to help legitimize their own efforts. Tijerina mesmerized the room with a story of Mexican land rights and U.S. government deception, later blunting criticism at home by publicizing King's tacit endorsement. Others credited King simply with opening their eyes. Velásquez said that King's words resonated with him - a story he often tells while traveling the country 40 years later as FLOC's president. "His comment was when you impede the rich man's ability to make money, anything is negotiable," Velásquez recalled. "I came away with that line branded in my brain." When the meeting ended after much discussion and even song, the conference had accomplished its main objective: to persuade leaders of the non-black poor that campaign organizers understood their issues and took them seriously. Wrote Myles Horton, long-time organizer and Highlander school founder: "I believe we caught a glimpse of the future … (and) the making of a bottom-up coalition."

After King's assassination in Memphis three weeks later, his successor Ralph Abernathy assured Chicano participants that the march would go on and that its goals remained unchanged. Velásquez pulled out, unconvinced that anyone but King could bring such disparate interests together. But other Chicanos remained committed, with more than 500 making the trip across the country. The reasons varied on why they went. Corky Gonzales saw the campaign as an opportunity to unify a still-fractured movement. Perhaps in Washington, he believed, fruitful contacts could be made with their black counterparts, other Chicano activists, or maybe even sympathetic members of the white power structure, be they journalists or public officials. Some perhaps more idealistic participants, such as Leo Nieto, a young Methodist minister with the Migrant Ministry of the Texas Council of Churches, saw the campaign as offering the potential of "seeing real democracy at work" and transforming a "glimmer of hope" into a greater federal commitment to the nation's poor, no matter what color. Nieto, who had journeyed 1,000 miles to attend King's funeral, also "felt that (blacks) were listening," perhaps for the first time since he had begun organizing in west Texas.

Others saw a chance to make more specific demands on the government - ones they might not be able to make without SCLC financing the endeavor. Roque Garcia of Santa Fe had been a member of the Alianza land rights group, had cut fences in protest of illegal property occupation, and even participated tangentially in that organization's infamous raid and citizen's arrest in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, in 1967. Owning the land was inextricably linked to poverty among ethnic Mexicans, he argued. But Garcia also viewed the trip to Washington as an opportunity to protest urban renewal efforts back home, which were creating "concentration camps for la raza," and a welfare system seemingly hostile to its clients. East Los Angeles activist Alicia Escalante sought bilingual forms for welfare benefits - an issue which the African American-dominated National Welfare Rights Organization had been slow to prioritize. Still others, like the Crusade's Ernesto Vigil, were attracted to King's militant language - tough talk promising "to dislocate the city's functioning, if necessary."

Whatever their motives, most ethnic Mexicans climbed aboard charter buses without knowing quite what to expect from the upcoming adventure - starting with the transcontinental journey. One of eight caravans traversing across the country, the Western Caravan carrying most of the campaign's ethnic Mexicans began in Los Angeles and stopped to pick up scores of new marchers in cities along the way. Most stops spawned a festive and hospitable atmosphere - from fiestas and rallies in Albuquerque and Denver to just simple home-cooked meals and warm beds in St. Louis. It was during these breaks when Gloria Arellanes' education really began. She recalled the generosity of her hosts: Corky Gonzales, who invited her and fellow Brown Berets to bond with members of the Crusade for Justice on their buses, to the older African American couple in Missouri who graciously opened up their home to her. But she also recalled the fear: the hard glint in the eyes of Texas Rangers, drinking beer as marchers were hustled into an El Paso arena because of a bomb threat; and the panic when a Chicano girl went missing for several hours in Louisville. Yet, overall, she and others remembered the camaraderie, singing, and spirit on those buses - perhaps overshadowed only by their anticipation of what the nation's capital held.

When the Western Caravan arrived in Washington, its members did not join the other, predominantly African American participants living in a tent city on the Washington Mall. Resurrection City, as it was called, quickly had become the most enduring symbol of the campaign, but not necessarily a good one. Although holding about 2,500 people at its peak and sporting an energy one journalist described as a "revival meeting within a carnival within an army camp," the shantytown was ravaged by disorganization and poor weather. By the time most ethnic Mexicans had arrived, two days of steady rain had transformed the town into "a sea of sloppy mud," slowing construction of the city's A-frame tents and fraying residents' nerves. "We didn't see what we had hoped to see," said Ernesto Vigil of the Crusade for Justice, adding that it was "clearly for understandable reasons. Martin Luther King had been assassinated." But "we figured, well okay, if they don't have their shit together, we wish them the best of luck. Meanwhile, we have to get on with what we want to do during the time that we're here." Instead, most ethnic Mexicans lived in the Hawthorne School, a nearby experimental high school which the Crusade's Richard Romero secured as temporary housing. A few ethnic Mexicans eventually moved into Resurrection City, often joining the campaign's small Puerto Rican contingent, but most would stay at Hawthorne until it was time to come home.

Journalists at the time portrayed Hawthorne as little more than a segregated bunker to which Tijerina and his followers retreated after confrontations with SCLC officials. Yet, choosing Hawthorne was perhaps the most critical decision made by Chicanos in their two months in Washington. It was in this space where much of their constructive relationship-building took place, so much so that several activists independently called it "a successful multi-ethnic community." Sometimes these connections were with folks from other backgrounds, particularly whites from Appalachia, but such contacts were certainly made among themselves. As Carlos Montes, another Brown Beret, put it: "When would we have gotten together with the Crusade?" he asked. "Lived with them? Shared bread with them? Marched every day with them?" Indeed, the opportunity to spend a month or more together - while someone else paid for it - was a golden opportunity for these young activists and key to their later activities in the movement. Vigil rattled off all the people he met for the first time during the campaign, folks that he would come to know very well in the next several years, including Brown Berets, UFW activists, Ernesto Cortes of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Tijerina and members of the Alianza, and Maria Varela, to name just a few. Based on their contact there, Alicia Escalante went to Denver to work with the Crusade for Justice, while Corky Gonzales' eldest daughter, Nita, met a Puerto Rican campaigner she would eventually marry - expanding the family's ties into a larger Latino alliance.

Another result was the development of a more sophisticated way of viewing poverty - a direct product of interacting with Appalachian whites. Of course, Corky Gonzales, a seasoned and well-read organizer, knew about the rich organizing tradition poor whites had in the Appalachian area. But for younger activists it gave them something to think about. "It was the first time that a lot of us had any contact with Puerto Ricans, with Appalachian whites," recalled Ralph Ramirez. " … When you never have been … over one hundred miles from where you were born, to come in contact with all these people and these different cultures and these different subcultures," it was an education far beyond any classroom. Rudy Gonzales, one of Corky's sons, found it invaluable in his later years to have played with kids of many backgrounds and ethnicities during their stay at Hawthorne. "I had never seen poor whites before," he recalled. "I mean dirt poor. Some hardly had shoes." Nearly all of the Chicano activists I interviewed echoed this sentiment, and one initial response they had was to gather the extra shoes and jackets they brought for the trip and to give them to their white counterparts. To them, whites were typically rich elites who suppressed the rights of other minorities and ran the nation's power structure; they certainly were not more impoverished than ethnic Mexicans, these activists had believed. For Montes, it helped crystallize some concepts in his head. Rather than vilifying white men, he began to criticize the capitalist structure and its most common defenders, rich white men - a change that proved invaluable to him in years to come, first as a Chicano movement activist and later as a labor organizer in Los Angeles.

Of course, bonds were also cemented as a direct result of the many demonstrations in which Chicanos participated - from the infamous rally at the U.S. Supreme Court building, in which several windows were broken, to the myriad protests outside federal agencies and inside congressional offices. The Supreme Court protest garnered a three-hour conversation with the head clerk, considered a moral victory by the 400 ethnic Mexicans, Indians, and blacks who participated. While marching back to Hawthorne, however, D.C. police officers on motorcycles nearly ran over several children, sparking a small melee, in which several Chicano men were beaten and arrested, including Ernesto Vigil and Danny Tijerina. "You really find common cause when you sit in the same … jail cell," Vigil observed. Luís Diaz de León recalled how he received his "Vietnam anti-war education" after Sal Candelaria, a member of the Black Berets in San José, California, came back bloodied from an anti-war protest. For the next six weeks, Chicanos took their message to the government for land and treaty rights, and against police brutality, education inequality, racial discrimination, and the Vietnam War.

While many relationships were made and strengthened, the skills of at least a few leaders were questioned during the Chicanos' time in Washington. Disgusted with Abernathy and SCLC officials for their unwillingness to live with their people in Resurrection City, Corky Gonzales and others called them out on their hypocrisy and ended up writing off the organization as a potential partner in the future. The campaign also turned out to be the beginning of Reies Tijerina's marginalization as a Chicano spokesman. Given the opportunity to work closely with the land rights activist, many fellow Chicanos were left unimpressed - and not because of his over-the-top religious imagery. Maria Varela quit working with him halfway through the campaign, convinced he was both racist and sexist, and simply not a good organizer. Gloria Arellanes recalled how he ate steak in the Hawthorne School while most everyone else ate beans and rice. Miguel Bárragan called him "hard to reach. … He was pretty much into his pontificating." And even the many children who had traveled with their families called him Reies "TV-rina" because of his penchant to chase television cameras. After the campaign, his legal troubles mounted but sympathy for him continued to dissipate - to the point that he became an afterthought by the 1970s.

During the last week of June, increasingly impatient authorities pulled the plug on Resurrection City and much of the energy of the Poor People's Campaign. Many Chicanos stayed on for another month, using the Hawthorne School as its home base for further lobbying and the development of a multi-ethnic Poor People's Embassy, designed to represent poor people's interests in the capital. But Corky Gonzales always had said that, "The real work, building bases of power, would remain when the activists returned" home. When they did return to Los Angeles and Denver, Albuquerque and west Texas, Chicago and Wisconsin, they were energized by the experience, by the people they met, by the lessons they learned. They were that much more serious and informed about what it took to make elites in Washington and at home listen. And the result was a more unified, energized movement in the years to come. It guaranteed that they would heed Gonzales' call to participate in the Youth Liberation Conference of 1969, where Chicanos crafted their most cogent statement on Mexican cultural nationalism within the United States. The campaign experience also led to any number of smaller local efforts by young Chicanos to make a difference in their communities while reaching out to radical whites, Native Americans, and blacks in places like Denver. Non-Chicano activists had similar experiences, such as Native American marchers Vic Charlo and Jessica Bordeaux-Vigil, both of whom went home better equipped than before they came.

But none of this becomes apparent solely through traditional written sources. Only after conducting oral histories do the campaign's true legacies become clear. While not a grand success, the Poor People's Campaign was also not the gut-wrenching failure described by many. Rather, civil rights activists continued to strive for social justice after King's death and influenced the other movements of the time. And it is through the voices of Gloria Arellanes and so many others that scholars like myself can challenge the master narratives that persist today, in both scholarship and the public memory.

Back to Front in the Fight for Freedom.