While Martin Luther King, Jr. is most famous for using non-violent tactics to secure civil rights for Blacks, his struggle for economic justice on behalf of all poor people is “often undervalued and less understood,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The museum attempts to rectify that by highlighting King’s last human rights crusade in a new exhibit called “City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.”
This image depicts three children in the entrance of a yellow tent in Resurrection City during the Poor People’s Campaign. (Courtesy photo)
The exhibit centers on a 43-day demonstration with nearly 8,000 protestors living in Resurrection City, a makeshift community they occupied on the National Mall to protest poverty. The exhibit opened Jan. 9 in the gallery the museum maintains at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History located in Northwest D.C. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Resurrection City is how the museum will recognize King’s upcoming Jan. 15 birthday.
“In 2018, there will be so much attention and discourse — rightly so — about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr,” Bunch told reporters Jan. 9 at a media preview of the exhibition. “At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we decided to acknowledge that moment, not by focusing on King’s death, (but) by helping the public remember his legacy and the issues, some of which are still unmet that he challenged America to address.”
In 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helmed by King and Ralph Abernathy, established the Poor People’s Campaign, a multicultural and multiracial coalition of nearly 6,300 people. It focused on ending poverty for the 35 million people who were left behind as the United States soared to world dominance and did not benefit from various government programs.
Abernathy picked up the mantle after King’s assassination and carried out the slain civil rights leader’s vision for Resurrection City that incorporated poor children, the elderly, Blacks and Whites from Appalachia and rural communities, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Asians.
Four architects went on to design Resurrection City, and people arrived in droves to live in 540 tents. At peak occupation, roughly 3,000 people were living in Resurrection City, according to the Smithsonian.
The exhibit also serves as a reminder that some Americans are still living in cruel poverty. The exhibition includes unseen, color footage from Hearst Corp. that begins withcaravans arriving from Memphis after King’s murder and includes Resurrection City’s evacuation and eventual demolition. The museum secured the footage from the National Archives, said Aaron Bryant, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
As you walk through the exhibit, you’ll hear original recordings of protestors singing and talking to each other in Resurrection City — Bryant secured those from the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. A digital component shows video oral histories with some of the people who helped organize the movement, including activist Marian Wright Edelman, and SCLC leader Andrew Young. An interactive map tracks the routes caravans took to the District from other parts of the United States.
Also on display are never-before-seen, color photographs of caravans coming to Resurrection City, of the city itself and of the people who called it home.
Robert Houston, at the time a 32-year-old Black photographer on assignment for Life magazine, donated some of the photographs from when he lived at Resurrection City for nearly five weeks. He didn’t stay the full 43 days because his wife, Greta Houston, was about to give birth to their third child in Massachusetts, Houston told the AFRO.
Houston recalled that the conditions at Resurrection City were “Hell on wheels.” It seemed to rain almost every day and there were mosquitos and mud everywhere, the Baltimore resident remembered. One of his most vivid memories from Resurrection City was palling around with a little boy named Willie, who was from the impoverished Marks, Mississippi.
Willie, whom Houston said never revealed his last name, was always running around barefoot. When the boy proudly secured a black blazer from the clothing truck that fit him like a glove, the child refused to take it off, Houston remembered.
“He wore that thing until it turned gray,” Houston said. “It’s the first time he’d ever had something to call his own.”
Resurrection City attracted demonstrators from around the world. It was a proper city, with plumbing, free medical and dental facilities, free meals and sewers. It even had its own ZIP code — 20013.
Although police evacuated and shut down Resurrection City and arrested 337 people after the SPLC’s permit to occupy the National Mall expired, campaign leaders didn’t give up. They instead presented policy positions to Congress on jobs, living wages, access to land, capital and healthcare. Some of them became law and remain with us today, Bryant said.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the multicultural fight for economic justice in 1968 and the campaign’s demands for meaningful jobs, access to land, support for people who can’t find jobs and other rights, still resonate today.
“What this ought to be about is that we now must pick up the baton of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and run anew,” Morial said.
Houston, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time thinking about Willie and the other children he photographed in Resurrection City. The 82-year-old photographer wishes he knew what they were up to, today.
“One of the greatest things that could happen in my lifetime would be for me to run into someone that I photographed,” Houston said. “I would love that, because I photographed so many kids. So many kids and when … I see my pictures, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Did you make it? Did you make it?’”