On Tuesday evening, EJI hosted a community event featuring Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who was recruited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to serve as national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.
Dozens of community members attended EJI’s screening of a rarely seen 1968 documentary that chronicles the efforts of Dr. King, Dr. Lafayette, and civil rights activists including Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and James Bevel, to organize the Poor People’s Campaign.
The film opens with Dr. King discussing the history of economic injustice in America. “In 1863,” he explains, “the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the Black man, through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor… Not only that, but it provided agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, but as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps.”
Dr. King envisioned the campaign for economic justice as the next and most challenging step forward in the movement for racial equality. As he explains in the film, integrating lunch counters and passing the Voting Rights Act “did not cost a penny,” but achieving economic justice would require the redistribution and investment of billions of dollars.
In a discussion with EJI’s Bryan Stevenson following the film, Dr. Lafayette recalled how Dr. King persuaded him to become the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. “He called me up and said, ‘This is going to be my last campaign. And we are going for broke.'” Dr. Lafayette headed straight to Atlanta to begin formulating the strategy for the campaign.
The evening’s program included a screening of EJI’s animated short film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, and a moment of silence to honor the legacies of Dr. Julian Bond and Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, civil rights heroes who passed away last month.
Community members also joined the staff of EJI in celebrating and welcoming home Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated and released in April after spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
Dr. Lafayette concluded his remarks by encouraging EJI’s staff and community partners in our efforts to address contemporary problems of mass incarceration, police abuse, and the presumption of guilt that burdens people of color, which are legacies of our nation’s history of racial injustice, from slavery through the resistance to civil rights for African Americans that Dr. Lafayette and his colleagues so bravely confronted. Securing the freedom of a wrongfully convicted man after 30 years, he said, “is like ending slavery.”