Bonilla on Mantler, 'Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974'

Gordon Keith Mantler. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 376 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2188-3.

Reviewed by Eddie Bonilla (Michigan State University)
Published on H-Afro-Am (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Richard M. Mares

Gordon K Mantler’s Power to the Poor contributes to the growing historiography on intra- and interracial coalition building. He analyzes the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) of 1968, seen as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final project to fight poverty and economic inequality by uniting people of different racial backgrounds. The author provides a captivating narrative that features a wide array of organizations, agendas, and ideologies across the United States before and after the PPC. He examines the “relationship between race-based identity politics and class-based coalition politics that was not antithetical, but mutually reinforcing” (p. 4). Through revealing the “complex dynamics between the nation’s two largest minority groups with distinct definitions of justice,” Mantler contends that African Americans and Mexican Americans could not exist without the other in the struggles against poverty and economic injustices. While African Americans and Mexican Americans receive the bulk of attention throughout the text, Mantler also highlights the participation of Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites, and American Indians in the effort to create a sustained multiracial movement of labor and civil rights activists. He coherently argues that race-based identities and class-based politics were not antithetical to one another; rather, identity politics was a necessary element of coalition building. The examples of multiracial cooperation utilized by Mantler challenges the work of other scholars who claim that identity politics hindered social movements between the 1960s and 1980s.

Mantler’s main argument is that the black freedom struggle and the Chicano movement were tied together despite having different histories of oppression. The first two chapters explain how Chicano and African American leaders held different definitions of economic justice. Issues of poverty were central to coalition building, as seen in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 in which “African Americans, whites, and a small number Mexican Americans made their demands for justice heard” (p. 32). The occasion of Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, the March on Washington epitomized the development of a multiracial movement against poverty. Mantler shows the difficulties in coalition building since the support of other racial groups was often only rhetorical. Activists at times narrowly pursued their own agendas and struggles, as indicated by the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) and the United Farmworkers (UFW) union. Surprisingly, the author shows that King and Cesar Chavez of the UFW never actually met, but rather in 1966 King sent a letter of support to the Mexican American leader.

The middle chapters explore the genesis of the PPC and its influence on concepts of identity in the Black Power and Chicano movements. Mantler states that these movements were strengthened by the interactions within and across racial boundaries during the PPC. He first details the 1967 La Alianza convention in Albuquerque organized by the group of the same name that was led by the popular Chicano leader Reis López Tijerina. The historic conference brought together prominent organizations and leaders from different ethnic movements. Leaders such as Ron Karenga of the US organization, Ralph Featherstone of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Thomas Banyacya of the Hopi Indians were in attendance. Participants at the conference engaged in critical conversations about their various struggles across the nation while attempting to understand one another’s historical context. Karenga infamously addressed the convention in Spanish, exclaiming “¡Vivan los hombres de Color!” (Long live men of color!), and Featherstone chanted, “¡Poder Negro!” (Black Power!) multiple times. Mantler argues the convention led to the “largest tangible accomplishment in coalition building,” which was the signing of the Treaty of Peace, Harmony, and Mutual Assistance. This agreement made a variety of vague promises, according to Mantler, to “respect the faith and culture of the signing members’ organizations, as well as to not attack each other verbally or physically” (p. 78). The Alianza conference and the March on Washington reflect different iterations of multiracial coalitions leading up to the PPC.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded the Poor People’s Campaign in December of 1967, although the organization had earlier roots. Organizing an “army of the poor” required a balancing of the agendas of already existing organizations. It also included outlining the various goals associated with the campaign among participants who carried preconceived notions of how to politically mobilize. A clear hierarchy took shape among organizers of the PPC that favored African American leadership due in large part to the SCLC’s access to financial resources and the rhetorical star power of King and aides such as Reverend Jesse Jackson. Despite a clear activist hierarchy, Mantler explains that activists of other races joined the movement. Leaders such as Tijerina believed King had jumped from civil rights to human rights organizing prior to his assassination and that this was necessary for creating a multiracial coalition, as his own organization sought to mobilize Mexican Americans and Native Americans for reclaiming indigenous land. Organizations such as the NWRO became frustrated with King throughout debates over goals and decision making. They eventually joined the movement and would later gain from their participation, but their reluctance shows the hesitancy of some activists in organizing a coalition.

The assassination of King sparked a surge in Chicanos seeking alliances with African Americans against state and street violence, as shown in chapters 4 and 5. A leadership vacuum left by King’s death was filled by his successor, Ralph Abernathy, but the organizational dynamics of the PPC had clearly changed. Caravans composed of different racial groups arrived to Washington, DC, to open Resurrection City in hopes of confronting economic inequality throughout 1968. Mantler is at his strongest when discussing the everyday lives of activists and the political changes they experienced due to their interactions in Tent City, which included a poor people’s university and an embassy. He argues that the daily interactions strengthened interregional networks and intra- and interethnic engagements, and bred long-term relationships across racial lines.

The PPC served as an incubator of activism and that, according to Mantler, is its most lasting legacy. Chapters 6 and 7 highlight activists returning to their respective regions energized from their stay in DC, which resulted in connecting people in Denver, Los Angeles, New Mexico, Texas, and beyond. The Chicano movement, Mantler claims, was strengthened by the PPC due to an emerging sense of Chicano identity. The development of groups such as the Crusade for Justice in Denver and its Chicano leader, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, as well as the rise of La Raza Unida Party in Texas as a third political party based on Chicano nationalism reveal a return to focusing on organizing one’s particular racial community. These groups are an example of those that created a new, “more culturally and politically nationalist direction of activism” that was seen by some as an impediment to coalition building (p. 195). In other words, Mantler shows that new forms of identity, including Chicano cultural nationalism, were shaped by participation in the PPC. Another lasting legacy of the PPC was that it strengthened a sense of self-empowerment and determination within racial groups that at times could hinder multiracial coalition building since some groups did return to organizing their communities first. Some organizations, however, did not end their efforts to build multiracial coalitions in their respective regions, as shown by the creation of the Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, which consisted of the Black Panther Party, led by Fred Hampton, as well as the Puerto Rican Young Lords and other racial groups.

The final chapter and the epilogue examine the 1970s and the shift in focus among African American and Chicano groups towards electoral political power, highlighted by the rise of La Raza Unida Party and the National Black Political Convention in 1972. Mantler suggests that the Black Power and Chicano movements were necessary because they enabled activists to develop some sense of self, a prerequisite to creating alliances. He writes, “identity-based movements that more lasting multiracial coalitions, particularly electoral, would emerge from in the late 1970s and 1980s” created a change in grassroots organizing (p. 245). The shift to the ballot box by African Americans, Mexican Americans, and others secured positions of political power at the local, state, and national levels across the country. He concludes with a discussion of what happened to PPC members and reiterates that “coalition” means the coming together of distinct groups of people, which naturally implies inherent differences between participants.

Power to the Poor is a well written and significantly researched book that explores instances where identity politics and multiracial coalitions were not mutually exclusive. The book is driven by a focus on individuals as activists participating in multiple movements while also focusing on their respective political trajectories from the late 1960s to the 1980s. It is a highly helpful read for those interested in the historiography of civil rights and identity-based movements, African American organizing, Mexican American activism, poverty, economic justice, and, most importantly, coalition politics. It also provides new avenues for research for scholars interested in the roles of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Appalachian whites in the various intra- and interracial coalitions from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Printable Version:

Citation: Eddie Bonilla. Review of Mantler, Gordon Keith, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. H-Afro-Am, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.