In 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was planning The Poor People’s March on Washington D.C. as part of the War on Poverty. Dr. King was adamant that the Poor People’s March and campaign did not focus just on poor African Americans but included poverty-stricken people without deference to race, creed or color. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Native Americans, and Caucasians, particularly from rural Appalachia were recruited to join the campaign. He planned to lobby congress for an Economic Bill of Rights which would include affordable housing and a guaranteed annual income for the poor of this country.
Dr. King would not live to see the March. But thanks to the efforts of the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who took over the leadership role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and others such as Jesse Jackson, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, poor people from around the country began their trip to Washington, DC by any way they could manage. For most of these poor people, this trip was an enormous financial sacrifice, yet a necessary burden – they would hand-deliver their message to Washington. Some of this journey was recorded by Pacifica producer Arthur Alexander along the road from Memphis Tennessee to Washington DC.
Once in Washington DC, activists constructed an encampment on the Washington Mall dubbed Resurrection City. This was used as a base camp for strategy meetings, teach-ins and speeches. On May 13th, 1968, the first sojourners arrived at Resurrection City, and Pacifica producer Ellen Kohn was there to record the events as they unfolded and to interview those who were there. Kohn captured the opening ceremonies, where the new president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Abernathy – now dubbed ‘Mayor of Resurrection City’) delivered a moving address. But perhaps the most powerful moment of the campaign was when the Reverend Jesse Jackson led the citizens in his call and response anthem I Am Somebody.
Mid-June of 1968 saw the population of Resurrection City peak at 50,000 people; but after heavy rains, dampened spirits, confused agendas and the assassination of Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, Resurrection City was closed on June 24th, 1968. Although the campaign is viewed as a failure, the experiences of those who took the journey– featured this week on From the Vault – are critical to the dialogue of race and poverty in America.