“It was in our wallowing together in the mud of Resurrection City that we were allowed to hear, to feel, and to see each other for the first time in our American experience.” -Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
At the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of planning an ambitious direct action campaign with the purpose of expanding the national conversation about Civil Rights in America. His idea was to gather people from around the country and from different races and ethnic backgrounds who shared a common struggle--the problems of poverty. Dr. King’s original plan involved an unpermitted (and illegal) occupation of the National Mall by the poor, making the realities of economic inequality visible to the nation’s leaders right on their doorsteps. King envisioned mass arrests of the protestors which he hoped would stir sympathy among the American public.
After Dr. King’s death, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) resolved to move forward with King’s vision. However, they altered his plan for civil disobedience and decided instead to apply for a permit with the National Park Service for an extended anti-poverty demonstration. On Friday, May 10, 1968, NPS issued the five-week permit for a “city” built along the Reflecting Pool. Construction of the plywood A-frame shelters, designed by architect John Wiebenson from the University of Maryland, began on Monday, May 13. There would eventually be almost 3,000 dwellings built in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, along with other community buildings such as a City Hall, medical facilities, and a dining hall.
Participants began making their way to the Nation’s Capital even before the permit was issued. The first group, dubbed the “Freedom Train,” arrived on Mother’s Day, May 12. That day, Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy led a march organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization through poor neighborhoods of Washington. During a rally at Cardozo High School stadium at the end of the march, Mrs. King called for reform of social service funding, noting that “Congress passes laws which subsidize corporation farms, oil companies, airlines, and houses for suburbia,” but was unwilling to make similar investments in programs to help the poor. This disparity in the distribution of government funds became a theme of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The next day, protesters began moving into the 16-acre encampment dedicated as “Resurrection City, U.S.A.” by Rev. Abernathy. After requesting permission to use the land from a member of the Creek nation, Linda Aranayko, Abernathy drove the first symbolic stake into the ground. The “construction battalion” got to work building the 8 x 20 foot plywood dwellings and setting up water, electrical, and sanitation facilities. Abernathy vowed that the participants would remain “until the Congress of the United States decide that they are going to do something about the plight of the poor people by doing away with poverty, unemployment, and underemployment in this country.” It was an ambitious vision.
Donations of money, food, clothing, blankets and other necessities poured in from around the country to support the effort. People arrived to volunteer their time and expertise as well. Doctors, dentists, barbers, and other professionals offered free services to the Resurrection City residents. Building professionals showed up to lend a hand. Local Washingtonians, from high school kids to members of Congress, came by to check out the encampment and ended up picking up a hammer or pitching in wherever help was needed.
The residents of Resurrection City regularly left the encampment and headed out to the various government agencies around Washington, D.C. to demonstrate and lobby for policy change to address the needs of the poor. As they fought side-by-side for better housing, education, food, employment, wages, and health care, they discovered that although their individual circumstances may be very different, their struggles with poverty were similar.
Such understanding did not always come easily, and relations in the camp could be difficult. As “mayor” of the temporary city, SCLC leader Rev. Jesse Jackson guided the residents to work through their difficulties. As he noted, “The first meetings of these different ethnic groups were exciting but tense. The groups were full of fear and mistrust of one another. Each group felt that it had a monopoly on pain and suffering.” Together they slowly discovered common ground and unity of purpose.
The Resurrection City demonstrators encountered a number of obstacles throughout their time together. The organizers were unable to construct dwellings and facilities quickly enough to keep up with arrivals of new people. Some participants found themselves waiting outside the city in churches and other donated spaces for a week or more before they could move in. The SCLC scrambled to raise enough funds to keep everyone fed and to provide supplies. The weather refused to cooperate; regular heavy rain turned the city “streets” into a muddy mess.
Perhaps most painful was the assassination in early June of Robert F. Kennedy, a vocal champion and supporter of the Poor People’s Campaign. For Civil Rights activists still mourning the death of Dr. King two months earlier, Kennedy’s loss was another painful blow. Kennedy’s funeral procession stopped at Resurrection City on the way to Arlington Cemetery so that the residents could pay their respects.
Rev. Jackson offered motivational speeches and sermons to lift the spirits of the residents when they got discouraged. It was during one of these sessions that he originated a call-and-response that he would reprise many times throughout his career of political activism. Based on a poem by Rev. William Holmes Borders, the chant prompted participants to repeat, “I Am-Somebody” even if they were poor, or sick, or unemployed. “I Am Somebody” rang out through the camp and re-energized the demonstrators.
The largest event of the protest was a “Solidarity Day” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1968. Over 50,000 people lined the Reflecting Pool on that warm, sunny day. They sang, prayed, and listened to speakers recall the day five years before when Dr. King had given his “I Have a Dream” speech in the same location. “Today is really only the beginning,” declared Rev. Abernathy. “We will not give up the battle until Congress of the United States decides to open the doors of America and allow the nation’s poor to enter as full-fledged citizens into this land of wealth and opportunity.”
A few days later, police shot tear gas into Resurrection City in response to reports of rock-throwing by some young people in the camp. “It was worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama,” remembered SCLC leader Andrew Young, who felt that the law enforcement action was disproportionately harsh. Most of the residents fled the encampment because of the gas. The next day, June 24, a Civil Disturbance Squad arrived to clear the camp. The NPS permit, which had been extended once, was now expired and would not be renewed. Over 300 protesters who refused to leave were arrested without incident while freedom songs played over the camp’s loudspeaker.
Because of the many difficulties and unfortunate end, Resurrection City has often been described as a failure. However, the meetings and demonstrations were successful in launching several food and school lunch initiatives. More importantly, the Poor People’s Campaign changed the national conversation about poverty and hunger. It united poor people from different communities in common purpose to fight alongside each other for economic justice.