Quakers and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

Some Friends and I have been involved in this year’s launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. I have been wondering about Quaker’s involvement in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. I knew Quaker Bayard Rustin had been involved in the 1963 March on Washington, but didn’t know if he was involved in the 1968 Campaign.

I have just learned that during the 1968 sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, “Friends were reminded that they have a deep responsibility to face up to the problems of prejudice and racial violence in themselves, their Meetings and communities. ‘We cannot be content unless we begin to change the social order.'” Proceedings of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1968.

“A sense of urgency seized the Yearly Meeting as it expressed its wholehearted intention of supporting the non-violent Poor People’s Campaign for Jobs and Income, which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was planning to hold in Washington in June. He hoped the Campaign would move those in power to proceed more energetically toward eliminating hunger and poverty, ‘to redeem the soul of American.'” A Procession of Friends, Quakers in America by Daisy Newman, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y. pp 380-381.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated April 4, 1968.

The following relates to the Friends General Conference held at Cape May, New Jersey, June 21 – 28, 1968.

“At Cape May, a few Friends urged the whole General Conference to adjourn to Washington and join the demonstrators [Poor People’s Campaign]. After prayerful consideration, Friends decided that it was their responsibility to remain and search for long-range ways in which the Society of Friends could serve.”

“The Associate Executive Secretary, Stephen G. Cary, was not present. He was serving a sentence of fourteen days in a District of Columbia jail for demonstrating with the Poor People.”

“In his statement to the Judge of the Court of General Sessions, Stephen Cary had said, ‘Your Honor, I want to say first of all that I respect the law and do not take casually a decision to violate it…There are two reasons that compel my conscience…I consider it absolutely intolerable that in this rich country of ours any child…should have to go to bed hungry…the Congress can talk righteously about refusing to be coerced, but the fact remains that it is wicked and wrong that food stamps are not made available without charge to those who have no funds to pay for them. The rich are subsidized with crop payments; the rich can coerce Congress with their lobbies; our nation can pour thirty billion dollars a year into destroying a poor peasant culture ten thousand miles away but the poor in American must continue to starve…I believe that the options are running out for our country…We who are white and affluent must therefore either stand behind responsible leadership who crusade for change in peaceful, non-violent ways, or we shall shortly be confronted with irresponsible leadership, who crusade for change with revolutionary violence. When this happens–and if we fail now I deeply believe that it will–our choice will be between repression and insurrection, and neither of these is to me a viable option for a free society.’” Friends Journal, Dec. 15, 1968

“At Cape May, youth was demanding attention. It pressed the Conference to take corporate action in support of the campaign. This resulted in ‘a called meeting for worship, petition and witness on Friday, June 28, 1968, in Washington, D.C….to bring about a shift in priorities of  American resources–to reduce drastically war and military expenditures and increase funds to meet human needs; a public vigil adjacent to the Capitol grounds; and a meeting for worship and petition on the Capitol grounds.’ This last was illegal, and Friends knew that anyone who participated in it was subject to arrest.”

“In Washington, on the day of the vigil, 250 Friends gathered across the street from the Capitol grounds. Thirty-five crossed to a terrace of the Capitol to hold a Meeting for Worship, near some members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were singing and praying. The Blacks were arrested. The Quakers were disregarded, although they were breaking the same law. Feeling that they were getting preferential treatment, the Quakers joined the Black group. Then the police arrested them, too. Charged with unlawful assembly, Friends were given sentences of from three to fourteen days in jail.”

“Two weeks later, eighty people, sponsored by A Quaker Action Group and the Young Friends of North America, each carried a loaf of bread and an explanatory letter to 435 congressmen in support of a proposed amendment that would eliminate the ceiling on Food Stamp funds.”

“How,”these concerned young people had asked one another, “are we going to present a small picture to dramatize the issue of abundance and hunger, of large farm subsidies and small welfare payments, of rich and poor people, of the need for substantial Congressional action…How can we encourage people to work on Congress for legislation to end hunger? So we carried bread and a letter to tell these things, hoping that the story of Jesus sharing five loaves with the multitude could be repeated.” The loaves had been baked by members of Friends Meetings and Washington churches. One loaf had a note attached. “I hope this tastes good–it is the first bread I have baked.”

“The congressmen liked the bread. But poor people still didn’t have enough to eat.”

A Procession of Friends, Quakers in America by Daisy Newman, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y. pp 381-384

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