The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the birth of the Center for Community Change are inextricably linked in the history of building a poor people’s movement in the United States.
When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he was in the middle of a plan to gather Americans who were struggling to get by for a march on Washington. The Poor People’s Campaign would demand good-paying jobs that allowed them to raise their families in healthy and safe communities and quality education that opened opportunities for them to thrive.
King’s death was followed two months later by the assassination of former Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, his fellow traveler who championed for a better life for people struggling to make ends meet. The Center for Community Change was created as the first project of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, intended to carry on Kennedy’s vision and values.
From its inception, CCC and its mission intersected, not just with Kennedy’s view of the world, but with King’s. The famed civil rights leader understood that for life to improve for low-income families, especially families of color, they would have to organize and raise their voices in order to change the policies and conditions that affected them the most.
For almost 50 years, that has been the mission of CCC and later, its political arm, the Center for Community Change Action.
We’ve stood up to lawmakers who would cut resources to struggling families.
We fought for the creation of a food stamp program that today feeds almost 50 million Americans.
We’ve trained grassroots leaders to challenge government officials in order to push for investments in their communities.
We’ve confronted banks that discriminated against people of color, pioneered the idea of housing trust funds that secure public funding for affordable housing and we’ve mobilized voters, particularly those of color.
Now with the ascension of President Donald Trump to the White House, we face a moment, not just the history of CCC, but in the modern era, in which the most vulnerable people and core democratic institutions are under extraordinary threats.
Trump’s early actions suggest that this is not a drill. That longstanding norms that have confined policy making and public discourse within certain parameters have been breached. Trump’s Muslim ban, mass deportation efforts and extreme budget cut proposals stand to hurt low-income Americans, particularly those of color, the most.
This is not and cannot be a time for business as usual.
What we’re doing
We face threats on every side — and we have to make hard choices about where and how to make a stand. For CCC and CCCA, the obvious places are in defense of the safety net and to protect vulnerable immigrants.
The administration and lawmakers in Congress are taking aim at the basic structure of the social safety net — programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP (food stamps), SSI, and the Affordable Care Act. Tens of millions of Americans already struggling to make ends meet could risk losing their last measure of security. If they succeed in destroying the framework of Medicaid and food stamps — not just through budget cuts, which can be restored later, but the foundations of underlying anti-poverty programs — we will see even more destitution.
Immigrants, too, are facing the most serious threats to their safety and livelihoods in the United States since the 1950s. This is a battle not just about policy, but about the nature of American identity and values.
Although the threats we face are indeed dire, a dire future is not inevitable. CCC is responding with unprecedented campaigns in the halls of Congress, in people’s homes and in digital spaces to safeguard our families, protect our communities and defend our nation’s values of tolerance and welcome.
This means we have to find more and better ways to build real power. This is where organizational power matters, the kind that King was striving for through the Poor People’s Campaign he was planning when he was killed. We need to invest in local and state organizations to recruit new people, engage on issues, move people into elections and to experiment at the local and national levels relentlessly and rigorously with new modes of civic engagement that can build lasting mass organization.
I know in these times many of us are angry and frustrated. I know I am.
But I take heart in words King spoke about two months before his death in which he said, “History has…taught… it is not enough for people to be angry — the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”
Almost 50 years after his death, King’s words could not ring more true.
Dorian Warren is the president of the Center for Community Change Action, the political arm of the Center for Community Change. The Center for Community Change is a supporter of MLK50.