Dr. King and Human Rights Organization in the Gullah/Geechee Nation

MLK Poor Peoples Campaign Poster 1968


I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that…we have been in a reform movement…we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.

Reverend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. made this statement inside Frissell Hall at Penn Community Services Inc.  which is now “Penn Center” during the May 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat on historic St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation.   The Gullah/Geechee Nation has continued to be a region that fosters the work of human rights.   These Sea Islands sands are where native Gullah/Geechees voted and elected their own leader as they stood together on their human right to self-determination to insure that their communities would not be displaced and that while they remained on the shores of the coastline that the economic and political power there were appropriately redistributed as Dr. King had called for in the final year before his assassination.

Many elders of the Gullah/Geechee Nation that were part of the meetings with Dr. King can speak of his insights and his personality.   However, many that speak and write of him do not mention his foresight beyond the final speeches that he gave prior to April 1968 in which they believe he saw his death coming.  Look at the words that he spoke before the advent of the internet and drones:

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution; that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution of weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapon of warfare. Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.

When the reality of what it meant for a group of Black leaders to come forth and be supported by their own people in a stand for their human rights, the Gullah/Geechee Nation‘s leaders and Dr. King were attacked.  Dr. King was attacked by many that he had previously worked with who felt he was moving too fast and was going to an extreme that they were not ready for.  They tried to tell him to just stick with what others who were not poor and who were not Black told them-do this gradually.  He wrote a clear response to this which was published as “Why We Can’t Wait.”  He also made it clear in his speech for the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign that:

Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away”… Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges … and new opportunities … We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming … to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.

The forces working against Dr. King and those that have attempted to work against the continuation of human rights work in the Gullah/Geechee Nation recognized the leaders’ consciousness and commitment which would allow for the capacity building needed to achieve the goal to increase the quality of life for those that are economically disadvantaged and that are often discriminated against.  Without a consistent commitment to freedom, no campaign for civil rights or human rights can be successful.  One must have just what an outstanding documentary about the Gullah/Geechee Nation has within its title-“the will to survive.”  While surviving, one should be thriving and not simply “getting by” and “making do.”

Those that were tired of being sick and tired literally were the people that Dr. King called together to join him in Washington, DC in order to hold the administration accountable via a platform that called for an Economic Bill of Rights.  This bill of rights was to lift the load of poverty.  It included:

  • $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty
  • Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation
  • Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated

To accomplish this, those engaged in the Poor People’s Campaign intended to undertake going to the National Mall in Washington, DC and building Resurrection City between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. This would be the staging ground for public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty in this country. The protest was to be coupled with a national boycott of major industries and shopping areas.  So, clearly the Poor People’s Campaign was using what one could call “best practices” of the civil rights movement to strike out on the human rights movement.   They had seen each of these methods work successfully in other states and had gotten a civil rights bill passed, so it was logical to continue using them in order to elevate to the human rights platform.

Dr. King did not live to march to Washington, DC with those that he had called together and had worked with to organize the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was killed April 4, 1968 and the masses proceeded to the Hill on April 29, 1968.   Nine regional caravans brought thousands there: the “Eastern Caravan,” the “Appalachia Trail,” the “Southern Caravan,” the “Midwest Caravan,” the “Indian Trail,” the “San Francisco Caravan,” the “Western Caravan,” the “Mule Train,” and the “Freedom Train.”   These groups returned home to continue the work that they had begun and many of the names of the leaders we never hear of.   The visionary’s death had dampened some spirits and caused many to fear continuing to seek freedom.

The fear of freedom is often at the heart of those that work against it.  As a result, many people work against own interest.   Dr. King saw this and stated:

You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

Dr. King was astute about what was taking place not only in the south or in the United States.  He also was well aware of the global movements that were taking place.  To that end, before he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, he did a speech in which he stated:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”… Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

Nothing has changed in his statement in the half century since his death except that he could add to this list the Gullah/Geechee Nation is rising up.  The Gullah/Geechee Nation we’ve got to stay together and maintain unity!  We must continue to affirm that we will do as Dr. King dedicated his life to doing and choose to identify with the underprivileged.  Choose to identify with the poor.  Choose to give your life for the hungry.  Choose to give your life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going in order to live up to the mission of the Gullah/Geechee Nation:

To preserve, protect, and promote our history, culture, language, and homeland and to institute and demand official recognition of the governance (minority) rights necessary to accomplish our mission to take care of our community through collective efforts which will provide a healthy environment, care for the well beings of each person, and economic empowerment.

We MUST continue to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment and  make the invisible visible.  We can only do this if we are indivisible!

Wok togedda chillun!  Don cha git wayree!  Do disya fa de King and fa de Queen ya!  Tenki Tenki!

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com)




    1. Penn Center and the Gullah/Geechee Community | Gullah/Geechee Nation
    2. Penn Center and the Gullah/Geechee Community | Beaufort County Historical Resources Consortium

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