RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the winter of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were looking ahead to the spring. They were planning a march on Washington, a Poor People's Campaign. Then King was assassinated, and the responsibility for leading the march fell to one of King's trusted lieutenants, Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
Reverend RALPH ABERNATHY (Civil Rights Leader): We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America's wealth and opportunity, and we will stay until we get it.
MONTAGNE: The Poor People's Campaign ended 40 years ago today. And as part of our series Echoes of 1968, NPR's Kathy Lohr has this look back.
KATHY LOHR: Reverend Abernathy led the tens of thousands of people who joined the Poor People's March on Washington to demand that the president and Congress help the poor, help them get jobs, healthcare and decent homes. But Abernathy was not alone. Ministers from around the country worked together, including Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Civil Rights Leader): You know, what I remember, I suppose, the most about it, was that we set the tents up at the foot of Lincoln's memorial.
LOHR: Jackson was mayor of the encampment called Resurrection City, where people came to live during the two-month campaign. Conditions were miserable.
Rev. JACKSON: It seemed to rain without ceasing and became muddy and people were hurt and we were still traumatized by Dr. King's assassination. Then while in the Resurrection City, Robert Kennedy was killed.
LOHR: The demonstrators were discouraged and disheartened. Jackson tried to give them hope through words.
Rev. JACKSON: I am…
Crowd: I am…
Rev. JACKSON: …somebody.
Rev. JACKSON: I am…
Crowd: I am…
Rev. JACKSON: …God's child.
Crowd: …God's child.
Rev. JACKSON: I may not have a job.
Crowd: I may not have a job.
Rev. JACKSON: But I am…
Crowd: I am…
Rev. JACKSON: …somebody.
Rev. JACKSON: And that refrain has resonated across the world in these last 40 years, but it grew out of the context of trying to give people a sense of somebody-ness who had nothing, but still had their person and their souls.
LOHR: Fifty thousand people ended up marching on the National Mall. Still the Poor People's Campaign was considered a failure by some who had grown tired and did not see changes in their lives. But not for Reverend Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King.
Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Co-founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference): The nation became conscious of the fact that it had an expanding poor population. It's one thing to have the right to check into the Hiltons and the Marriotts, and it's another thing to have the means to check out.
LOHR: And for many in America, not very much has changed in the 40 years since the Poor People's Campaign. In 1968, 25 million people, nearly 13 percent of the population lived below the poverty level according to the Census Bureau. In 2006, 36 million people, more than 12 percent of the population still lived below the poverty level.
(Soundbite of car engine)
LOHR: The past of the civil rights movement and life in today's black community converge at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Reverend Arthur Price, Jr. is the pastor.
Reverend ARTHUR PRICE, Jr. (Pastor, 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham): This whole side, this whole left side of the church was decimated when those blown bricks are blown inward all the way towards the alter.
LOHR: Four girls were killed here in 1963 when a bomb exploded during Sunday Service. Reverend Price worries that too few parents are bringing their kids to church.
Rev. PRICE: I believe that if we can get people engaged on the front end and teach them a good foundation, that some of the social ills that we have in our society will be less and less.
LOHR: Price preaches from the pulpit on Sundays, and the church holds Bible study classes in the same basement where those four little girls died.
Unidentified Woman: Okay, what is our topic for this week? We're talking about what type of heroes?
Unidentified Child: Faith heroes.
Unidentified Woman: Faith heroes.
LOHR: More than half a dozen children kindergarten age and younger sit around a table, coloring themes from this week's vacation Bible school lesson. It's one way the church reaches out to the community.
Unidentified Woman: Yes, so we learned that we should always have faith in God, right?
Rev. PRICE: We don't live in a box. We are in the culture. We are around the culture. And sometimes we have to preach against the culture.
LOHR: Price teaches men how to become better fathers and helps first-time drug offenders turn their lives around. But there are few civil rights marches now, and much has changed. Back in the 1960s, pastors dominated their neighborhoods. Churches were the place where African-Americans shared their entire lives.
Reverend ANTHONY JOHNSON: If I can sum it up in a word, I think we don't have a faith like we used to as people in our - you know, we just - we've become so fragmented.
LOHR: Thirty-five year old Reverend Anthony Johnson is the grandson of N.H. Smith, Jr., a civil rights leader and pastor in Birmingham. Johnson says there are more churches now, but less involvement in the community.
Rev. JOHNSON: As opposed to, you know, going to the traditional Baptist and AME churches of old, you know, and then on getting on the mother's board or an auxiliary or whatnot, then we chose rather to be anonymous.
LOHR: And mega churches have grown in popularity in black communities, just as they have in white communities. Their pastors have gained followers, preaching about wealth rather than about human rights.
Reverend CREFLO DOLLAR (World Changers Church International): See, when you serve Jesus, you ain't got to sell no roses on the corner of the highway.
LOHR: Reverend Creflo Dollar preaches to his congregation of nearly 30,000 at the World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia.
Rev. DOLLAR: Because there's already a built in financial plan in the Abrahamic covenant that says if you give, it'll come back to you, and I'll overtake you with my blessings.
(Soundbite of cheers)
LOHR: Mega churches have a mast influence and wealth in part because of their shear numbers. Some have created satellite churches and broadcast their gospel on television. Many who were part of the civil rights movement and their heirs lament the trend.
Rev. PRICE: There still needs to be a voice crying out in the wilderness.
LOHR: Reverend Arthur Price.
Rev. PRICE: There still needs to be a charge from the pulpit to ignite people, to prick the consciousness of our brothers and sisters, and to keep the mirror up in America's face to let them know that they do have responsibility to the least of these.
Unidentified Man: There's a God.
Unidentified Group: Yeah.
Unidentified Man: There's a God who leads us all, with a hand of power and a heart of love. If I am right, he'll fight my battles. I shall be free someday.
LOHR: Ministers both young and old carry the torch that Ralph Abernathy and others picked up from Martin Luther King. But they worry today that too few pastors are willing to speak out to confront complacency and to act as the nation's conscience.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News