They began arriving by the busloads on May 12, 1968 to demand economic justice. The Poor People’s Campaign, the brainchild of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), drew a diverse coalition of white, Latino, Indigenous and Black Americans to Washington, D.C., from across the country.
They came from big cities, both coasts, Appalachia, the Deep South, the Midwest and the Southwest, then all settled in to become residents of “Resurrection City.” The makeshift tent city spread across 15 acres near the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in an encampment designed as a multi-day protest against government inaction on poverty.
Demanding an Economic Bill of Rights
Rather than hold a one-day demonstration to raise awareness about income inequality, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign called on activists to camp out on the National Mall until the federal government committed to the anti-poverty policies featured in their economic bill of rights.
For almost six weeks, about 2,700 demonstrators huddled in the plywood tents of Resurrection City, enduring rain and mud, clashes with police and, sometimes, chaos. Although conditions became rough, the event ultimately ushered in food assistance and nutrition programs that benefitted low-income people three years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsuccessful war on poverty.
“The war on poverty was declared but never fully fought or funded, in part, because of the distraction of the Vietnam War and the amount of resources that went into the Vietnam War,” says historian Gordon Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. “King...had come to the conclusion that there needed to be a real dramatic effort to get the government to rededicate itself to the war on poverty, and that that was inextricably linked to the war.”
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination Overshadows Campaign
But King never lived to see his vision play out. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and his death then overshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign. As the nation reeled, the campaign was forgotten—it was later described as “the biggest protest on the Mall that nobody’s ever heard of.” But scholars argue the campaign deserves more recognition not only for its gains, but also for its influence on 21st-century populist movements.
Lenneal Henderson was a 20-year-old University of California-Berkeley student at the time of the protest and was among the throngs of campers at Resurrection City. Henderson was also on the Berkeley campus in 1967 when King visited to recruit Poor People’s Campaign activists.
“The one thing that stood out was his statement that in the 1963 March on Washington, the slogan was freedom and jobs,” says Henderson, now a senior fellow and eminent scholar at Virginia State University and adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. “And he felt that there was much more of a focus on the freedom part but not enough on the jobs and, therefore, not enough on the issues of poverty and unemployment. So, he wanted the next campaign to focus on poverty, jobs and job development.”
Henderson also recalls King saying that he wanted the Poor People’s Campaign to be much more diverse than his previous civil rights campaigns because poverty affects every community.
Just before the campaign was set to begin, King was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out in the wake of King’s death, and there was uncertainty about who would lead the effort and the SCLC. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy eventually stepped into the role, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson served as Resurrection City manager.
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Campaign leaders presented government officials with a list of anti-poverty policy recommendations. They wanted workers to have meaningful jobs that paid 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 the development and implementation of government programs that affected them.
Stormy Weather Made Conditions Uncomfortable
Resurrection City functioned like a real town with its own city hall, general store, medical center, barber shop, mess hall and even its own zip code. But a storm in late May leveled the mess hall and led to the departure of roughly 1,000 participants. Rainfall drenched Washington during the demonstration and made camping on the Mall a trying experience.
“I think the weather had a lot to do with [some of the departures] because it's excruciatingly hot and humid in Washington, D.C., in the summer, and these tents did not have air conditioning,” Henderson recalls. “We had portable air conditioning but it was certainly inadequate, so that will scatter a few people.”
Media emphasized outbreaks of violence and crime at Resurrection City. But Aaron Bryant of the National Museum of African American History and Culture says that pictures by the late photographer Robert Houston depict a different reality. Rather than crime, Houston’s photos show weary families, smiling women and earnest children. To mark the campaign’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Bryant curated the exhibit “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” which features Houston’s photos.
“Bob Houston had captured these images that sort of contradicted many of the things that you would read in the newspapers, or even in the congressional records of testimony from conservative politicians,” Bryant says. “There were a lot of negative reports out there about all of these poor people camping out on the National Mall.”
Resurrection City came to an end when the 36-day permit for the demonstration ran out. Organizers secured a permit extension, but the day after it expired on June 24, police cleared out the tent city. Afterward, only about 500 protesters remained, and campaign leaders, including Abernathy, were arrested. Some of the Resurrection City residents protested in response, and the authorities used tear-gas grenades to disperse the crowd.
Henderson camped out at Resurrection City for its duration, describing the movement as a “life-changing experience.” He acknowledges some have deemed the project a failure, but he disagrees. He pointed out that civil rights groups such as the NAACP, National Urban League, League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Council of La Raza “picked up some of the themes from the campaign and then made them into their own image and likeness.”
MLK's Mission to Highlight Poverty
Mantler says that he tries not to measure social movements in terms of traditional concepts of success and failure, but he recognizes that the Poor People's Campaign did not have clear-cut victories such as desegregation of schools or buses. “But there were smaller victories, and there were more resources put into poverty programming,” he says. “Some people were able to get some of the federal agencies to listen to people’s stories of poverty and how particular policies impacted them on the personal level.”
The Poor People’s Campaign was the culmination of King’s life work, according to Bryant. “He had always been concerned with issues related to poverty and economic justice and human rights,” Bryant says, “and the Poor People's Campaign is really a combination of things that he was interested in going all the way back to the 1950s. The Poor People's Campaign transitioned us from a time of focusing on racial justice to human justice and human rights.”