This year has already seen several notable fiftieth anniversaries of events from 1968, one of America’s most seismic years. These have included the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy—events that rattled the very core of America’s belief in itself.
Resurrection City, the encampment of protesters that sprang up during May and June of 1968 on the National Mall in Washington, was a more drawn out and less shocking event. Yet it remains powerfully relevant to American life today.
Back at the start of the 1960s, the United States was emerging as a global model of wealth and democracy. But unequal access to opportunities left many Americans struggling, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare a War on Poverty in 1964. It wasn’t enough, and an estimated 35 million Americans continued to live in poverty, cutting across every race, age, and region.
In response, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African-American civil rights organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, organized a Poor People’s Campaign to confront poverty as a national human rights issue.
Eventually, about 3,000 people were encamped on the National Mall in a space taking up nearly fifteen acres. By the end of May, Resurrection City boasted a general store, a health clinic, and a city hall.
The plan, as described by King, was to “lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington” to demand federal funding for full employment, anti-poverty programs, a guaranteed annual income, and housing for the poor.
The campaign’s organizers hoped it could mark a new era in American history. As King put it, “This will be no mere one-day march in Washington, but a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.”
Despite King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, thousands of people travelled to Washington to honor his memory and pursue his vision. Activists began arriving in Washington in May, and on May 10 the National Park Service issued a permit to allow marchers to camp on the national mall, after which they built Resurrection City, comprising thousands of wooden tents.
“They set out building a sprawling encampment of canvas and plywood structures to house the multitudes expected,” wrote journalist Jules Witcover in his book, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968. “[A] construction battalion of 500 took up the work, shouting ‘freedom!’ as each nail was struck.”
Eventually, about 3,000 people were encamped on the mall in a space taking up nearly fifteen acres. By the end of May, Resurrection City boasted a general store, a health clinic, and a city hall.
“It represented an effort to bring together poor people from different backgrounds and different experiences, who really had not been brought together before—in fact they had been set against one another,” Lenneal Henderson, a college student at the University of Berkeley California, who travelled to the city as an activist, recalled in an interview. “People from all kinds of backgrounds, and all over the country came together: Appalachian whites, poor blacks . . . American Indians, labor leaders, farm workers from the West, Quakers. It was just an incredible coalition in the making.”
Activists visited government departments on a daily basis, reeling off lists of demands and protesting the poverty of millions of Americans.
“I was there one afternoon—up there doing another story and just went over,” Bruce Roberts, a photojournalist who documented Resurrection City, recalls in an online exhibition on the events of 1968 by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas, which houses Roberts’ photographic archives. “When I first saw the place, I could see some of the government buildings beyond the trees. It was strange that you could get this view of ‘the people’ here and ‘the government’ there.”But by late June, Resurrection City was mired in controversy. Congressmen were calling for its closure, and tensions were mounting—both with local police and among campers.
The day after the permit expired, police moved in to clear Resurrection City, arresting more than 100 people, while workers from the Interior Department began dismantling the camp.
“The poor in Resurrection City have come to Washington to show that the poor in America are sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless—and they are criticized for being sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless,” wrote Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker.
The day after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s permit expired, police moved in to clear Resurrection City, arresting more than 100 people, while workers from the Department of the Interior began dismantling the camp.
The goals of the Poor People’s Campaign were never realized, and the problem of poverty has continued to dog America—the world’s richest country.
“It’s sad that the United States still stubbornly refuses to pick up the ashes we have created in the last four decades,” Robert Bly wrote in his 1990 bestseller, Iron John. “Our agricultural policy is ashes, our schools are ashes, the treatment of blacks is all ashes, the trade deficit is ashes, the environmental policy is ashes, the poverty of women and children is ashes.”
Today, fifty years after Resurrection City and the original Poor People’s Campaign, an estimated 43 million Americans live in poverty. Meanwhile, about 51 million households—more than 40 percent of households in the country—can’t earn enough to facilitate a basic monthly budget covering housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone, according to a study by the United Way ALICE Project, a nationwide effort to quantify and describe the number of households that are struggling financially.
Earlier this year, a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign launched with the support of organized labor. Its demands include access to affordable health care; implementation of living wage laws; free tuition at public colleges and universities and an end to profiteering on student debt; and relief from crushing household, student, and consumer debt.
As the struggle to bring justice and equality to all in America continues, Resurrection City and the events of 1968 continue to provoke, inspire, and offer hope amid the gloom. “It was exciting to be part of something that potentially, at least, could make a difference in the lives of so many people who were in poverty around the country,” Henderson says. “Even though the Economic Bill of Rights we were pressing for was never passed, I think it was successful in many ways. For one, the relationships that those folks built with one another carried on way beyond 1968.”