1968 was a big year in American history. In April, the assassination of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., rocked the country. Tragedy struck again in June, with another assailant taking the life of popular politician, Robert F. Kennedy. That year, the war in Vietnam experienced several major developments, particularly in the form of the infamous Tet Offensive. With so many substantial events occurring within the space of that one year, it is not surprising that other issues of significance run the risk of becoming eclipsed in the broader scheme of the national historical narrative.
One such instance is that of the Poor People’s Campaign, the brainchild of Martin Luther King, Jr., intended as a “multiracial coalition of poor people who would confront Congress and the White House in…a nonviolent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol” (Terry Messman, “The Poor People’s Campaign: Nonviolent Insurrection for Economic Justice,” Race, Poverty and the Environment 14, no. 1, Spring 2007: 31). Working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign as a second March on Washington of sorts, culminating with the construction of several “shantytowns near the White House, to make poverty visible” (Messman, 31).
An unexpected wrench was thrown into preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign march, however, upon King’s assassination on April 4th, 1968. Following the appointment of Ralph Abernathy as leader of the SCLC in the aftermath of King’s death, plans for the Poor People’s Campaign and its occupation of Washington resumed at a heightened pace. The first protestors arrived in Washington a little over a month following the King assassination, and within a week a shantytown consisting of “tents made of plywood and yellow tarp [was] constructed on a sixteen acre site near the Lincoln Memorial” on the grounds of the National Mall (Robert Houston and Aaron Bryant, “Most Daring Dream: Robert Houston Photography & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” Callaloo 31, no. 4, Fall 2008: 1273). Popularly referred to as “Resurrection City”, this encampment grew to house thousands of people through the campaign’s duration. Featuring its own zip code and mayored by Jesse Jackson, Resurrection City quickly became its own community, with an identity separate from that of the city on whose grounds it stood (John Kelly, “Before Occupy D.C., there was Resurrection City,” The Washington Post, December 3rd, 2011).
Unfortunately, Resurrection City was not devoid of the “riots, protests, and violent repression that had followed King’s assassination” throughout the country (Messman, 32). One particularly nasty encounter on the evening of June 20th, a few days before the camp’s land use permit was set to expire, included the deployment of a Molotov cocktail within the vicinity (whether it was thrown at or by Poor People’s Campaign members remains a matter of debate to this day) and culminated with D.C. police officers “fir[ing] more than a dozen tear-gas canisters into the encampment (Kelly). Four days later, on June 24th, the permit authorizing the Resurrection City encampment expired and the site was deconstructed and cleared.
Today, there are no traces of the Poor People’s Campaign tent city that once sprawled across the Mall’s grounds near the Lincoln Memorial. The site once occupied by Resurrection City now houses a portion of Korean War Veterans’ Memorial, completed in 1995. Recognizing that it would be a shame for the memory of the physical embodiment of one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final efforts toward universal equality to fade into obscurity, the National Park Service — the agency with jurisdiction over the National Mall and its associated monuments — hopes to commemorate the Poor People’s Campaign and the ideals represented by the Resurrection City demonstrators.
For our final project, myself, Kristen Horning, and Joanna Capps are partnering with the National Park Service to create a digital forum through which the Resurrection City experience can be interpreted to the public. We hope to create a webpage to be featured in the “History and Culture” section of the National Mall’s public website. Additionally, we aim to increase the opportunity for interpretive connection through the development of a mobile phone application featuring a walking tour following the layout of the original Resurrection City tonight in conjunction with photographs and interpretive texts and/or audio recordings providing additional information. In conducting the research necessary to complete this project, we will be collecting data through a number of different sources, from utilizing the collections of the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other public cultural institutions, as well as conducting oral interviews with individuals who experienced Resurrection City firsthand, whether as active participants in the Poor People’s Campaign, or as locals living in the area at the time.
Ultimately, we imagine the finished product will serve as a digital means of connecting audiences to the cultural resource embodied in the key issues, beliefs, and values associated with Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign. A final goal for this project is the hope that the issues raised in our digital discussion of Resurrection City will resonate with modern audiences and encourage a deeper appreciation not only for the equal rights movements of the past, but also what more can be done to assist those facing similar struggles in today’s society.