If Kennedy’s comment provided a final catalyst, the seeds of the Poor People’s Campaign can be found a year earlier in the Mississippi Delta. In June 1966 King and his closest associate, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, were visiting a Head Start daycare in Marks, Mississippi, a tiny town in Quitman County—the poorest county in the country. It took them a moment to notice that the bright-eyed children were malnourished. At lunchtime, the teacher brought out a brown paper bag of apples and a box of crackers.
When she cut an apple into quarters, and gave one slice, and four or five crackers, to each of the waiting, hungry students, King and Abernathy exchanged solemn glances. This was all the children had for lunch, they realized with shock. Neither man had ever seen poverty like this. Dr. King began weeping, and had to leave the classroom. That night, lying on a motel bed and staring at the ceiling, King said, “Ralph, I can’t get those children out of my mind.”
For the next year, King weathered setbacks in Chicago, challenges to his leadership from the emerging advocates of the Black Power movement, questions about the relevance of nonviolence in the face of increasing urban rebellions, and a storm of controversy over his stand against the war in Vietnam. But the issue of poverty never left his mind.
At the SCLC staff retreat in November, King revealed his plans for a poor people’s march to Washington to his colleagues and called for a new “stage of massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of modern corporate society.” Sixteen months after he had been moved to tears in Marks, King was on the cusp of bringing 3,000 poor people—“a nonviolent army,” a “freedom church of the poor,” he called it—to Washington, D.C., to demand a “radical redistribution of economic power.”
King had long lived under a shadow of danger. His colleague Walter Fauntroy remembered that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, King gazed out a window and said, “Walter, you know, if they’ll kill a president, I won’t live to be 40.” As author David Garrow states, “In the last 12 months of his life, King represented a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he ever had before.” As King began to question “why are there 40 million poor people in America” he knew he was “tampering and getting on dangerous ground … because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with the economic system of our nation.” But he did not back away from economic injustice.
On March 4, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent an internal memo stressing the urgency of the counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) the FBI had initiated in August 1967 against what they called “Black-Nationalist Hate Groups.” The March 4 memo expanded the COINTELPRO from 22 to 44 FBI offices, and, for the first time, specifically named Dr. King. In the memo, Hoover ordered his agents to “prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement,” adding that “King could be a very real contender for this position,” should he abandon nonviolence. Like King, Hoover recognized the potential power of a unified movement for justice.