Columnist

I’m in the process of digitizing my slides and I came across a number of photos I shot at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, better known as “Resurrection City” — or I guess today it could be called “The 99 Percent, First Edition.” If you were around back then, you may recall that it was an unusually damp and rainy spring, turning the area occupied by the demonstration into a muddy mess. It’s hard to believe it was 42 years ago; I guess some things in D.C. just never change.

— Dana Krupa, Springfield

 

It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who had the idea to use nonviolent protest to do for the poverty-stricken what he and other civil rights leaders had done for disenfranchised blacks. After King’s assassination, his successor at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, saw the project through.

The first demonstrators arrived in Washington on May 12, 1968, on buses from Mississippi. Fifteen acres had been secured near the Reflecting Pool. An architect named John Wiebenson designed simple structures for the demonstrators — eventually numbering more than 2,800 — to live in. Soon Resurrection City had streets, a city hall, a general store, a cultural tent, a first-aid station . . .

In 1968 nearly 3,000 demonstrators came to Washington and moved into Resurrection City, a plywood shantytown near the Reflecting Pool. They were protesting poverty in the United States. (Bob Burchette/WASHINGTON POST)

It also had rain. It rained 11 of the first 19 days that Resurrection City was in existence, turning the ground into a muddy, gloppy mess. Even so, many residents contended it was nicer than the homes they had left behind. Sen. Eugene McCarthy sent a telegram endorsing the campaign. Mayor Walter E. Washington visited Resurrection City, declaring: “All I’ve seen is in pretty good shape. . . . Things are well in hand.”

But many of the same criticisms that dog the Occupy Wall Street movement soon surfaced, chief among them a lack of clear demands. Calls for “freedom” and “justice” were not specific enough. Wrote The Post: “Sympathetic Senators and Congressmen who have kept an informal liaison with Campaign leaders are pleading for clarity.”

Still, it was hard to argue with the protesters’ main desire: a meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen.

A rally was planned for June 19 — Juneteenth — and the demonstrators’ permit to camp on the Mall extended to June 23. On Solidarity Day, 50,000 marchers fanned out from the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

That was the high point of the Poor People’s Campaign. Any affection for Resurrection City evaporated the next day. Marchers said that on the evening of June 20, someone threw a molotov cocktail in Resurrection City. Police said the fiery debris came from the camp — and was aimed at them. They fired more than a dozen tear-gas canisters into the encampment.

Already there had been complaints that crime was rampant in the makeshift city, although organizers pointed out that there is crime in every city, even plywood ones.

On June 24, police cleared Resurrection City of its remaining residents, arresting stragglers without serious incident and charging them with congregating without a permit. A day later, crews came to pack abandoned belongings in boxes and take them to the Navy Yard to await owners who may have been arrested.

As a GSA worker named Junior G. Walker pulled nails from plywood A-frames, he told a Post reporter that he felt disillusioned. “I got to feel something, man,” he said. “They’re my people.”

In October 1968, Ebony magazine printed an essay by the man who had been Resurrection City’s city manager: Jesse Jackson. “There is an inherent contempt that the economic system holds for the suppressed at the bottom of the economy,” he wrote, adding, “Resurrection City cannot be seen as a mudhole in Washington, but it is rather an idea unleashed in history . . . . The idea has taken root and is growing across the country.”

The idea was dormant for a long time, but it seems to have been awakened in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square. What will come of it this time?

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