First EditionKing, Martin Luther. Original speech relating to King’s last March on Washington, 1967-8, which he dubbed “The Poor People’s Campaign,” cut short due to his assassination. First Edition. Original press statement, 5 pages. This speech, dated March 4, 1968 comes on the cusp of the campaign “We will begin this campaign on April 22nd with the first wave of poor people.” Yet intervening between that date and the date of this speech was King’s own assassination, on April 4. Foreshadowing that event with his urgency, King proclaims, “We are going to Washington on the urgent business of reform before it is too late.” His goal is to “re-order our national priorities,” as he writes “We must guarantee that in this richest society in history, the poor, too, can find comfort and security and decent jobs and respect…[We] have the gravest responsibility to stand up and act for the social changes that are necessary to conquer racism in America. If we as a society fail, I fear that we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.” The Poor People's Campaign was a shift in focus to economic justice, after King observed that civil rights gains had not improved the material conditions of life for many African Americans. Representing a change from earlier rallies, the Poor People's Campaign was a multiracial effort including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. We could find only one other copy of this rare document, coming at the final turning point in King’s Civil Rights career, only a month before his death,held by the King Center.
The Poor People’s Campaign was the most ambitious experiment in Civil Rights history, putting into practice new methods intended to “dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it.” King discusses the recent “Kerner Report” a recent Presidential commission which for the first time found and acknowledged racism as the ultimate cause of poverty and violence in African American communities. Quoting a famous line in the Report, King writes that “Our nation is splitting into two hostile societies and the chief destructive cutting force is white racism.” King credits the members of the commission for “the wisdom to perceive the truth and the courage to state it.” Yet he warns of the danger the Report will be “duly filed away” while “discrimination, segregation, poverty and violence did not disappear.” King points to his experiences in both Selma and Birmingham, “Our experience is that the Federal Government, and most especially Congress, never moves meaningfully against social ills until the nation is confronted directly and massively. The Civil Rights Commission years ago called for voting rights legislation but Congress did nothing until we forced the issue din [sic] the Selma movement. Basic civil Rights legislation had long been put aside until we made the nation face the problem in our Birmingham campaign.” He pleads the “absolute necessity of our spring campaign in Washington, D.C. for jobs and income and the right to a decent life.”
At the time of these statements, King was traversing the country to gain the support of local organizational leaders, labor and minority groups, and for the first time recruiting specifically across racial lines. It was for this purpose King to travel to Memphis on April 4 to support a sanitation workers’ strike. There, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet, and died a hero the American Civil Rights campaign. The caravan to Washington, and the encampment in the National Mall went on under the leadership of King’s second-in-command, Ralph Abernathy, and his widow, Coretta. They stood their ground in King’s stead until they were driven out in June by national guardsmen with tear gas.
Period sources state King handwrote his speeches before handing them off to aides, who would type a clean copy then mimeograph them for the press, typically in a run of about 200 copies. Most, if not all, were distributed to the press, and then lost. Today, the only other original copy of this document is in the collection of the King Center. Like those in the King Center, this document escaped destruction because it were never distributed, but rather remained as the personal copy of King or his top staffers. This can be proven by the fact that all press copies were carefully inscribed with a copyright symbol ©, while King’s copy brought with him to the podium and other internal copies remained blank. This press release spent decades in an SCLC filing cabinet, where it was exposed to dampening on the left side but is otherwise untouched. It now presents in only fair condition with water staining and rust around the original staple, which is still holding. Mark from previous paper-clipping upper left. Light grey water stains to left side of document and bottom left corner frayed. All text legible. The right side of the document was apparently more protected in its file and is in very good condition. It was gifted from the Estate of Thomas Offenburger to Stoney Cooks. Both Offenburger and Cooks worked with King at the SCLC, with Offenburger as publicist and Cooks as a young Director of Student Affairs. A poignant memento of King’s unfinished campaign, marked by the tragedy of his assassination. The only known copy outside the King Center as per OCLC World cat, and unknown to public auction records.