This Weekend in 1968: The Legacy of Resurrection CityMAY 10, 2008
- Resurrection City, June 1968
- (Ollie Atkins Photograph Collection, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries)
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Forty years ago, on this weekend in 1968, men and women were arriving from all over the country to Washington, D.C., as part of the Poor People's Campaign. It was the last movement organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before his assassination.
- Jill Freedman
- Ollie Atkins Photograph Collection, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries
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This Weekend in 1968
Rev. King had the vision to bring together poor people of all races to make visible the plight of poverty. It was not to be a sit-it, but a live-in. They built "Resurrection City" on the mall on Washington -- and the legacy of this city's rise and fall lives today.
This weekend in 1968 was the opening of Resurrection City. We start the story with Dr. Bernard Lafayette:
Dr. Bernard Lafayette: I got a call from Martin Luther King. This was in '67. He said, 'I need you to come down to Atlanta and to move here and work full time. This may be my last campaign and we're going for broke.' And when I got to Atlanta, he appointed me the national coordinator for the Poor People's Campaign. Now the idea originally came from Marion Wright Edelman.
Marion Wright Edelman: I was Marion Wright back in 1968. I had been working with Robert Kennedy on poverty in Mississippi, and he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. To make them visible.
Lafayette: And the idea was that we would bring those people in front of the folk who make decisions and build this tent city and camp out until you get what you want. The two of us, we're talking, so I said to MLK, 'Well, you say this is a PPC. Well, black people aren't the only ones poor -- are you talking about getting Hispanics involved?' He said 'Yes!' 'What about Native Americans?' 'Yes!' So I was getting to the final question, and that was the poor whites from Appalachia... He said, 'Are they poor?' He said if they were poor then this was their campaign.
Edelman: And so the planning began. I was with MLK on April 4, 1968.
Lafayette: I was there at the Lorriane Hotel in his room, 306. That morning, we were talking about the details now of the Poor People's Campaign and the press conference we were going to have in Washington, D.C. So I got on a plane, and five hours later, he was assassinated.
Walter Fauntroy: My name is Walter Fauntroy.
Lafayette: Rev. Walter Fauntroy was the man who was operating between the government and the poor people.
Fauntroy: And it took all we had to say. They killed the dreamer... 'Come to Washington.' So they came with some hope.
Edelman: They came by bus, by train.
Rev. Ruby Reese Moone: I am the Rev. Dr. Moone Reese Moone.
Edelman: They came in a mule train from the South, and the mule trains were very slow and very hard.
Moone: Thousands and thousands of people... From all across America.
Edelman: I discovered a map of Resurrection City recently that I didn't know existed which is an aerial view. It looks like a refugee camp.
Stoney Cooks: A city of plywood, teepee-looking A-frames, houses. There were some people who really made their A-frame look like home. A little family would dig up flowers and put them around their A-frame.
Edelman: Between 2,000 and 5,000 people were crammed in there for May and June.
Cooks: I mean literally, every available spot was taken.
Lafayette: We had full facilities for a city. So we had to have a mayor.
Voice over loudspeaker: 'I would like to introduce to you Dr. Ralph David Abernathy -- the mayor of Resurrection City! Yeah!'
Fauntroy: There was adequate food, a City Hall.
Fauntroy: Health Care.
Cooks: Every single day, we started with a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture. And then we'd branch out from there.
Fauntroy: People were organized in their areas of interest. If you were an Indian, you wanted to go to the Interior, to talk to people in Indian Affairs. Let them know that policy needs to change. If you were a farmer, you went to Agriculture. So it went -- well, early on. Some despair drifted in when the people they talked to... seemed nasty. 'I don't want to be bothered with you poor people. You are a problem. You are tax eaters.' That kind of foolishness. But we always picked them up when we got back. They have a good hot meal and some entertainment.
Lafayette: Musicians came in the evening.
Fauntroy: Oh my goodness!
Cooks: Jimmy Collier.
Fauntroy: Peter Paul and Mary.
Lafayette: I think Pete Seeger came...
Fauntroy: And we got to singing...
Lafayette: So, always visitors coming through. Even when there was mud and everything else.
Cooks: Every day. It would be nice and bright and all of a sudden clouds would come through -- and ha! The rain.
Moone: People got tired of living in the wet.
Cooks: There were even rumors that the government seeded the clouds.
Lafayette: Somebody counted and they said it rained for 40 days.
Fauntroy: Which sort of amplified the despair. And when you've got a muddy spirit and muddy eyes and a muddy future, you turn on one another instead of to one another.
Cooks: We had robbery, burglary.
Lafayette: Cooks probably didn't tell you this, but some guy came in to rob and Cooks gave the person the impression that he was going to give him the money, but instead, Cooks knocked the gun out of his hand and the barrel of the gun fell out.
Cooks: It was 4,000 or 5,000 people, and all of their problems.
Voice on radio: 'Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today...'
Fauntroy: June the 5th, 1968.
Cooks: To hear the Robert Kennedy was assassinated, it was like 'My God, again.'
Fauntroy: It was hard, people just went crazy. They were cussing out nuns who were coming every day to feed because they were white. They were turning on one another -- 'You Hispanics are taking our jobs, you Indians should have beat the Cowboys.' There was just a pervasive angryness.
Moone: The leadership of the Poor People's Campaign were very disgusted. They were not getting Congress to listen. And they were saying, 'You're going to hear us before you leave.'
Fauntroy: And the Federal Government said, 'Look, if you could control the people, put them in the kind of discipline we had when it was beautiful, fine.' And as I said, all of a sudden. It just popped out!
Cooks: The bulldozers came in from the 17th St. entrance.
Edelman: I think it was June 24th.
Cooks: People were told move out or you're going to be crushed over.
Fauntroy: And I went down there and watched it. Helplessly.
Cooks: This was demolition. They bulldozed it.
Fauntroy: The people I had been talking to didn't have any prior knowledge of it.
Cooks: And in a very short period of time, there was no more Resurrection City.
Fauntroy: I think Resurrection City is remembered as a failure, but even its failure lifted us to higher ground. At least, that's how I view it.
Lafayette: Whether it ended poverty, the answer is 'No.'
Edelman: Change is a long, hard thing.
Fauntroy: Martin Luther King put it this way: 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends towards justice.'
Edelman: And I think it's really important for people to know that, while they went back home in despair and depressed, a lot of follow-up occurred which did lead to major federal investment in nationwide nutrition programs, like food stamps and school lunches. So the Poor People's Campaign struggle was not in vain.
Fauntroy: So, I look back on the Poor People's Campaign and that decade, as painful as it was, as what was necessary to awaken enough people to change public policy. (singing) 'We shall overcome, deep in heart, I do believe we shall overcome' ...And that's that.More stories from our This Weekend in 1968 series