MEMPHIS — When he was killed 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was working on a campaign to unite poor people of diverse backgrounds to demand better homes, jobs, and education.
Now, civil rights leaders are reviving the Poor People’s Campaign with 40 days of marches, sit-ins and other peaceful protests. Organizers of the rekindled campaign discussed their plans Tuesday in Memphis on the eve of the anniversary of King’s death.
‘‘This first 40 days is not the end; it’s the launch,’’ said the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, one of the cochairs of the revived campaign. ‘‘You will see simultaneous moral direct action. You will see simultaneous training of people to prepare for a season of massive voter mobilization.’’
Starting May 14, clergy, union members, and other activists will take part in the events in about 30 states, targeting Congress and state legislatures. Then, on June 23, organizers plan a large rally in Washington — similar to what King had envisioned. The original Poor People’s Campaign was carried out in 1968, after King’s death, by other civil rights leaders.
Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis of New York, who started planning the new campaign in December, discussed the details at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, one of several locations holding events commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
Aside from mobilizing voters, Barber said the revived campaign will call attention to poverty, racism, and environmental issues. Organizers plan to release a study later this month on poverty in America over the past five decades.
King had envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington as a way to speak out against economic injustice, as he shifted his focus from civil rights to human rights. But before he could finish those plans, he came to Memphis in 1968 to support a strike by black sanitation workers who were tired of dealing with low pay and dangerous working conditions.
King led a march in Memphis that turned violent on March 28, and he went back home to Atlanta. Seeking to prove that nonviolent protests still worked, King vowed to lead a peaceful march and returned to Memphis days later.
The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel when he was shot on April 4, 1968. He died at a hospital at age 39.
Meanwhile, 50 years after the assassination, American perceptions of progress toward racial equality remain largely divided along racial lines, a recent AP-NORC poll show. The majority of African-Americans surveyed saw little to no progress toward equal treatment in key areas that the civil rights movement sought to address. White respondents frequently portrayed a rosier picture.
The survey asked respondents how African-Americans have fared in topics ranging from access to affordable housing to political representation. Three topics generated the most polarized responses from African-Americans and whites: treatment by police, the criminal justice system, and voting rights.
Treatment by police
King’s 1963 ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech set police brutality among the chief issues civil rights activists sought to address. Poll responses show that more than 7 out of 10 African-Americans think little or no progress has been made in treatment by police over the last 50 years.
Assessing any change in police treatment of African-Americans isn’t easy because comprehensive data on police interactions and use of force is difficult to obtain, especially in a historical context. However, several studies have attempted to use federal surveys, state administrative data from traffic stops, and FBI arrest data to gauge the scope of the racial disparities. Their findings indicate sustained inequality in this area.
Traffic stops are the main reason police interact with the public, and some studies indicate that the experiences of white and black drivers are remarkably different. A Stanford University study pieced together data from 16 states to show that black drivers are more likely to be stopped, ticketed, searched, and arrested than white drivers. Another study by a professor at Harvard University compiled data from federal sources and concluded that when black drivers are stopped by police, they are more likely to be grabbed, handcuffed, and have a gun pointed at them than white drivers. Similar data from police interactions in the 1960s and 1970s aren’t available for comparison.
Criminal justice system
At the time of King’s assassination, the US prison population was a fraction of its current size, and the rate of incarceration for African-Americans was more than five times the rate for whites, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show. In the AP/NORC poll, more than 6 of 10 African-Americans said that little or no progress has been made in the criminal justice system’s treatment of African-Americans in the last 50 years.
By the late 1990s, the rate of black incarceration had risen to over eight times the rate for whites. While that gap has narrowed, data from BJS shows that in 2016 it still remained slightly wider than it was in 1968.
The criminal justice system’s disproportionate impact on the African-American community goes beyond the incarceration rate. African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the US population but account for 38 percent of the population on parole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of the 3.8 million Americans on probation, nearly a third is African-American.
In the AP/NORC poll, voting rights was the issue given the most positive response: 63 percent of blacks and nearly 90 percent of whites indicated at least some progress. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to protect African-Americans from widespread discriminatory practices, and voter registration trended upward shortly after. But critics say new obstacles — such as voter identification laws and regulations for those with felony convictions — limited those rights over the years.