In his intriguing new book, Power to the Poor, Gordon Mantler challenges the traditional interpretation of the Poor People’s Campaign as an abject failure that floundered after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and bogged down in the mud of Washington, D.C., and the separatist politics of culturally nationalist organizations. Instead, Mantler argues that the Poor People’s Campaign was a “remarkably instructive” multiracial attempt to demand a continuation of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty (p. 5). In addition, Mantler calls the relationship between culturally nationalist organizations and multiracial coalitions, like the Poor People’s Campaign, “mutually reinforcing” since black, Chicano, white, and American Indian activists were involved in both simultaneously (p. 4). In the process, Mantler builds on some of the new scholarship on the War on Poverty and black-brown relationships in the 1960s and 1970s.
In laying the groundwork for the central part of his book, his analysis of the Poor People’s Campaign, Mantler discusses earlier attempts at multiracial coalitions, such as the National Conference for New Politics and the Alianza convention in 1967 at which black, Chicano, and American Indian groups convened and reached tentative agreements around mutually shared ideals or goals, but which resulted in very little shared activism, in part because of differing definitions of poverty. Mantler argues that King, Ralph Abernathy, [End Page 160] and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who headed the Poor People’s Campaign, talked about multiracialism, but, in fact, maintained a hierarchical organization with black men at the top. Thus, the campaign tended to emphasize issues of the black poor, rather than other issues, such as land, which was emphasized by Chicano leaders like Reies Lopes Tijerina. As a result, Resurrection City, the physical encampment of the campaign in Washington, D.C., was largely black and “became a symbol of the black poor” rather than a multiracial symbol of poverty (p. 123).
For Mantler, the real symbol of multiracial coalition occurred at the Hawthorne School in Washington where poor white, Chicano, and American Indian activists gathered instead of at Resurrection City. Their shared experiences, especially a demonstration at the United States Supreme Court over Native fishing rights which led to a brutal beating of some demonstrators by police, unified these multiracial demonstrators. Participants, particularly Chicano activists, then used those experiences to return to their communities and nationalist organizations, reinvigorated and renewed. Mantler clearly demonstrates that participation in the Poor People’s Campaign led Chicano activists like Corky Gonzales and others to create the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference and La Raza Unida. Indeed, Mantler argues that the most significant legacy of the Poor People’s Campaign was “its inadvertent strengthening of the Chicano movement and its unique form of identity politics” (p. 185).
Mantler’s book makes important contributions to our understanding of the long War on Poverty, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the relationship between multiracial coalitions and identity politics. He convincingly argues that differing histories and definitions of poverty did not preclude nationalist groups from joining together in multiracial efforts against economic injustice. Indeed, his book shows that although difficult and messy, multiracial coalitions like the Poor People’s Campaign led to significant and permanent changes in the lives of those who participated and in the further development of culturally nationalist movements. [End Page 161]
Robert Bauman is associate professor of history at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Pullman, Washington. He is the author of Race and the War on Poverty (2008) and is currently researching the role of religious organizations in the long War on Poverty.