Interview with William Rutherford

There was much debate over the Poor People's Campaign idea with SCLC. When the Poor People's Campaign was first proposed, did many SCLC staff people jump to agree with Dr. King?


When the Poor People's Campaign was first proposed I have to say that almost no one on the staff was really enthusiastic about the idea, let alone the problems and, ah, process of organizing a mass demonstration around the poor. The genesis of the Poor People's Campaign I'd say was really and Dr. King's thinking and the evolution of his thinking and you must remember that, ah, at the time, SCLC, ah, had achieved considerable success in a number of areas and, if the staff were basically indifferent to, I'd say indifferent to rather than opposed to an effort in that direction, it was based on the history of the movement until that point. If you remember there was, ah, the whole area of public accommodations. This was certainly one of the greatest achievements in, ah, the history of race relations in the United States. When they, actually for the first time in the history of the country, opened up all public facilities to all Americans. Ah, there was similarly, a very strong, ah, move, organization within the movement for voter registration. Remember that in 1964 they had passed the Voting Rights Act and we had a division. It was, ah, supported, ah, by various foundations and by the public around the country, ah, to register people to vote. So this was a very important activity. So citizenship training, to teach people, many people had never had the opportunity to vote, didn't really understand the importance of voting or didn't really care about voting. So we had what we called a Citizen Educa--Citizen Education and Voter's Right Department that was headed by Dorothy Cotton. Ah, and that's what she worked on basically. The other really important, ah, element within SCLC at the time was what we called our Affiliates Division. You know, SCLC was a grouping of organizations, grassroot organizations basically, clergymen throughout the United States. Basically in the South but throughout the country. So people were very actively organizing these local affiliates to work in their communities on public accommodations, ah, and voting, ah, registration drives and so on. And similarly we had begun the Bread Basket Movement which originated in Atlanta with two, ah, Black clergymen in Atlanta and so on. So the staff was really quite busy and quite involved in things when Dr. King looked up and in his reasoning and I'm paraphrasing of course, he said, "Fine, we now have the right to vote. Fine, we can now go to any restaurant, any hotel, any place we want to in America but we don't have the means. So what good does it do for people go to any restaurant in the world if you don't have the money to pay for a meal?" So, he says, "We've got to attack the whole issue of poverty, ah, and economic deprivation." And that was his thinking, his reasoning for pushing for a Poor People's Campaign. But of course when this has to impact on people that have been fighting to get people registered and into polling place, people who have been fighting to get, ah, education, people who have been fighting for the right to, ah, go into public accommodations. The idea of attacking something as vast and as amorphous as poverty, of course wasn't very appealing. So I'd say that basically almost no one on the staff thought that the next priority, the next major movement should be, ah, focused on poor people or the question of poverty in America.