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This Weekend in 1968

The Fall of Resurrection City

Ann Heppermann

Kara Oehler

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Young residents of Resurrection City, 1968
(Jill Freedman)
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Joining the armed forces is one option for folks just graduating from high school this month. But in the late 1960s, that wasn't a likely option. Young people back then were caught up in the culture of protest -- against the Vietnam War, against racial injustice, and in 1968, against poverty.

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Resurrection City, a shanty town and protest on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C., that lasted from May through June 1968 when it was razed by federal workers. The goal was to bring together poor people of all backgrounds and put the faces of poverty before the government. It was the last campaign organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., before his assassination, and organizers continued with it after his death.

Dr. Maurice Isserman, now a history professor at Hamilton College, was a high school student at the time. He remembers being a part of the last stand:


Maurice Isserman: In the spring of '68, as I was getting ready to graduate, I heard about this Poor People's Campaign that Dr. King was going to lead and we were going to create this interracial city of the poor in the center of Washington. And on June 19th, they were holding an event called "Solidarity Day" -- and that was the moment for the outside supporters who weren't necessarily poor themselves to come and demonstrate their concern for the War on Poverty.

And I talked my parents and I said I really want to go down for that -- and my parents, after some discussion said: "You can go down." So on the day of my high school graduation, I marched to "Pomp and Circumstance" and got my diploma. And an hour or so later, I was on a train from Connecticut to Washington, D.C. -- traveled all night to get down there to Union Station.

Archival audio: "Today is Solidarity Day..."

Isserman: And it was a big event, about 50,000 people. But after five days, I learned that Resurrection City was coming to and end.

Archival audio: "Even though they may jail me, I'm going to stand up in the jailhouse of Washington, D.C., and say 'Let My People Go!'"

Isserman: And what followed was one of these classic '60s moments... When I called my parents up -- I'd been talking to them every day or so, telling them what I'd been up to -- and I said, "Oh, um, by the way, I want to go get arrested tomorrow with the people from Resurrection City." And they said, "No you're not. You're coming right home." And I said, "Well, sorry mom, but I made up my mind." I felt guilty because basically I was a good kid -- but I also felt it was something that I had to do.

Archival audio: "And I intend to stay here until justice rolls out of the halls of Congress..."

Isserman: So that evening, I took my sleeping bag and my little rucksack and went down to the front gate of Resurrection City and said, "Gee, I want to get arrested with you tomorrow -- and can you find me a place to sleep." And they said, "Well, we're not admitting anybody who hasn't previously been a resident of Resurrection City."

It was dark and I was contemplating what I wanted to do. I didn't have anyplace to sleep. And this guy leaned out over the fence -- this black guy about my age, maybe a little older -- and said, "What are you up to man?" And I said, "Well I want to get arrested tomorrow with you but they're not letting me inside the gate." And he said, "Oh, we'll find a way."

So we walked down a little ways along the fence and he found an opening and brought me to his shanty. Walked in and there was a bunch of guys -- all black guys -- and it turned out that they were Black Stone Rangers, which was an infamous Chicago street gang. But these guys were really nice. They found me a bunk and they welcomed me, and so I spent the night sleeping in the tent with the Black Stone Rangers.

Next morning, we all got up and had a bowl oatmeal from the camp kitchen and a cup of coffee and marched off to the Capitol grounds. And there I was, following Rev. Abernathy, to commit an act of civil disobedience.

And we all crossed over an invisible line and [were] carted off to the Washington city jail. And there I was, in the Washington city jail, sitting next to Ralph Abernathy

Archival audio: "Who's our leader? Abernathy!"

Isserman: ...and I was certainly star-struck. I was sentenced to seven days in jail will all of these heroes of mine. We were shipped out to a minimum-security detention center in northern Virginia. We stayed in this kind of big dormitory and had kind of political discussions all day with people who were veterans of Birmingham and Selma -- conducted classes on civil disobedience

Archival audio: If I must join Robert Francis Kennedy and Martin Luther King, I still will not bow down.

Isserman: And it was very powerful experience... And it reminds me that there was a lot of flashy radicalism in the late 1960s and a lot of brandishing of guns and chanting of slogans -- but the true radicals were the people who came earlier and who really changed America, who transformed America.

Archival audio: "I do not know how long it will be, nor what this future holds for me..."

Isserman: I was just glad to have had some contact with them for that brief moment -- the very end of the heroic era.

Archival audio: "I shall be free, someday..."

  • Music Bridge:
    Misdirection
    Artist: Elephant9
    CD: Dodovoodoo (Rune Grammofon)

Comments

  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Janet Adams

    From Montgomery, AL, 06/27/2009

    I am a writer and have lived in Montgomery for the past 12 years where I have met a number of people who were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, interviewed a number of them and am now working on a project to get hand imprints of those still living in order to have them bronzed by a local firm. Recently met with 98 year old Amelia Boynton Robinson who was struck down during the Selma March. She was later involved in Resurrection City. I am very interested in learning more about Resurrection City.
    Janet Adams

    By Bernie Byrne

    06/23/2008

    Wieth the demolition of Resurrection City, a contingent of its inhabitants relocated to a woodsy area in Dunn Loring near what is now Tysons Corner VA. Is anyone aware of news stories of this relocation?

    By Thomas Cohn

    From St Louis, MO, 06/21/2008

    Maurice is my oldest and closest friend in the world and I have always been proud of his intensity and commitment.
    Our mother's were best friends and, though we were born 9 days apart into quite different homes, he is the closest thing I will ever have to a brother. His passion for recognizing and supporting the disenfranchised in our country has had an impact well beyond the small town of Clinton.

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