They began arriving by full buses on May 12, 1968 to demand economic justice. The Poor Campaign, the brainchild of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), has drawn a diverse coalition of White, Latino, Native and Black Americans to Washington, DC, from across the country.
They came from major cities, both coasts, the Appalachians, the Deep South, the Midwest and the Southwest, and then all settled down to become residents of “Resurrection City”. The makeshift tent city stretched across 15 acres near the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in an encampment designed as a multi-day protest against government inaction on poverty.
WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America premieres Saturday June 19 at 8 / 7c on The HISTORY® Channel.
Require a declaration of economic rights
Rather than hold a one-day protest to raise awareness of income inequality, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign called on activists to camp out on the National Mall until the federal government agrees to enforce the anti-poverty policies contained in their declaration of economic rights.
For nearly six weeks, about 2,700 protesters crowded into Resurrection City’s plywood tents, enduring rain and mud, clashes with police and, at times, chaos. Although conditions became difficult, the event ultimately ushered in food aid and nutrition programs that benefited low-income people three years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsuccessful war on poverty.
“The war on poverty was declared but was never fully waged or funded, in part due to the distraction of the Vietnam War and the amount of resources spent on the Vietnam War,” the historian explains. Gordon Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: The Black-Brown Coalition and the Struggle for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. “King … had come to the conclusion that there had to be a truly spectacular effort to get the government to re-dedicate itself to the war on poverty, and that this was inextricably linked with the war.” “
Martin Luther King Jr. assassination overshadows campaign
But King never lived to see his vision come true. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and his death then eclipsed the Campaign of the Poor. As the nation reeled, the campaign was forgotten – it was later described as “the biggest mall protest no one has ever heard of”. But academics argue that the campaign deserves more recognition not only for its gains, but also for its influence on populist movements of the 21st century.
Lenneal Henderson was a 20-year-old student at the University of California at Berkeley at the time of the protest and was part of the camp crowd in Resurrection City. Henderson was also on the Berkeley campus in 1967 when King went to recruit campaigners for the poor.
“The only thing that stood out was his statement that in the 1963 March on Washington the slogan was freedom and employment,” said Henderson, now senior researcher and eminent researcher at Virginia State. University and Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William. & Marie. “And he felt that there was a lot more emphasis on the freedom part but not enough on jobs and, therefore, not enough on the issues of poverty and unemployment. He therefore wanted the next campaign to focus on poverty, employment and employment development.
Henderson also remembers King saying he wanted the campaign for the poor to be much more diverse than his previous civil rights campaigns because poverty affects every community.
Just before the campaign began, King was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out over King’s death, and there was uncertainty over who would lead the effort and the SCLC. Reverend Ralph Abernathy eventually accepted the role, while Reverend Jesse Jackson served as director of Resurrection City.
Campaign leaders presented government officials with a list of policy recommendations to fight poverty. They wanted workers to have meaningful jobs that pay a living wage and the unemployed to have a guaranteed income. They also called for the public to have access to land and capital, and for citizens to play a role in shaping and implementing government programs that affect them.
Stormy weather made conditions uncomfortable
Resurrection City operated like a real town with its own town hall, general store, medical center, barber shop, dining hall, and even its own zip code. But a storm at the end of May razed the refectory and caused the departure of around 1,000 participants. Rains flooded Washington during the protest and made camping on the Mall a grueling experience.
“I think time has a lot to do with [some of the departures] because it’s excruciatingly hot and humid in Washington, DC, in the summer, and those tents didn’t have air conditioning, ”recalls Henderson. “We had portable air conditioning but it was certainly insufficient, which will scatter a few people. “
The media highlighted the outbreaks of violence and crime in Resurrection City. But Aaron Bryant of the National Museum of African American History and Culture says the images of the late photographer Robert Houston portray a different reality. Rather than crime, Houston photos show tired families, smiling women, and serious children. To mark the campaign’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Bryant hosted the “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” which features photos of Houston.
“Bob Houston had captured these images that sort of contradicted a lot of things you would read in the papers, or even in congressional accounts of testimony from conservative politicians,” said Bryant. “There have been a lot of negative reports about all these poor people camping out on the National Mall.”
Resurrection City ended when the 36-day permit for the protest expired. Organizers got a permit extension, but the day after it expired, on June 24, police emptied the city of tents. After that, only around 500 protesters remained and campaign leaders, including Abernathy, were arrested. Some residents of Resurrection City protested in response and authorities used tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds.
Henderson camped in Resurrection City for its entire duration, describing the movement as a “life-changing experience.” He acknowledges that some viewed the project as a failure, but he disagrees. He pointed out that civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza “took up some of the themes of the campaign and then transformed them. in their own image and likeness. . ”
MLK’s mission to highlight poverty
Mantler says he tries not to measure social movements in terms of traditional concepts of success and failure, but he recognizes that the campaign of the poor has not achieved clear victories such as the desegregation of schools or buses. . “But there have been smaller victories and more resources have been devoted to poverty reduction programs,” he says. “Some people have been successful in getting certain federal agencies to listen to people’s stories of poverty and the impact of particular policies on them on a personal level.
The campaign of the poor was the culmination of King’s life’s work, according to Bryant. “He’s always been concerned with issues of poverty, economic justice, and human rights,” says Bryant, “and the campaign for the poor has really been a combination of things he’s been interested in since the 1950s. The campaign of the poor took us from an era where we focused on racial justice to human justice and human rights.