Resurrection City Residents

MLK’s Final Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign

The protest King was planning before his death was the original Occupy Wall Street.


Photographs by Jill Freedman

In December 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) laid out an idea for a massive new front in the ongoing fight for civil rights: The following May, they would summon all the deprived in the world’s richest nation to convene in Washington, D.C., and demand decent incomes, health care, and affordable housing. They would call this movement the Poor People’s Campaign.

‘NEITHER LIFE NOR LIBERTY’ Jill Freedman/Getty Images ‘NEITHER LIFE NOR LIBERTY’

In his life of activism, King had seen how racism and economic exploitation are intertwined, and he believed that America’s military intervention in Vietnam funneled away resources that should have gone to its own citizens. “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists,” King preached on March 31, 1968.

But just four days after delivering that sermon, King was fatally shot on a motel balcony in Memphis, where he’d been supporting striking sanitation workers calling for higher wages.

UNITE ALL RACES Jill Freedman/Getty Images UNITE ALL RACES

In a tribute to King’s courage and resolve, the leaders of the SCLC decided to move forward with the Poor People’s Campaign. In May, tens of thousands of people from across the country, still grieving but determined, traveled to the capital by bus and by caravan, even by mule, to realize the civil rights leader’s unfinished work. They were mostly African Americans, but Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and whites also joined the movement. Their common adversity: poverty.

THE ORIGINAL OCCUPY Jill Freedman/Getty Images THE ORIGINAL OCCUPY

There on the National Mall, protesters erected a makeshift city using plywood and canvas, and held daily demonstrations at various federal agencies. They demanded the Economic Bill of Rights, a $30 billion anti-poverty package that provided the poor with a guaranteed annual income, jobs, and ended discrimination in housing, and vowed not to leave until they saw results.

The encampment, which became known as Resurrection City, was built to hold 3,000 people but sheltered 7,000 at its peak. It had a small clinic and a general store, and even its own ZIP code: 20013. The movement was, as history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries calls it in Vox, the original Occupy Wall Street (the movement, started in 2011 in New York City but soon spread globally, by disenfranchised people against financial inequality).

JOIN THE MOVEMENT Jill Freedman/Getty Images JOIN THE MOVEMENT

Among the protesters at Resurrection City was Jill Freedman, who took the photographs you see here. After learning of King’s death, Freedman, then 27 years old, quit her job as an advertising copywriter in New York City and made her way to D.C. She lived in the settlement for the entire six weeks of its existence and documented demonstrators bringing their demands straight to the nation’s legislators. Here, Freedman captures demonstrators carrying a sign with King’s picture during “Solidarity Day” rally on June 19, which drew at least 50,000.

A TROUBLED CAMPAIGN Jill Freedman/Getty Images A TROUBLED CAMPAIGN

Near-ceaseless rain, tensions with police, and rifts between organizers plagued Resurrection City. Then, on June 6, another demoralizing blow: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, a strong advocate for social reform and economic justice, was dead, assassinated by a gunman while on the campaign trail. On June 20, a day after the Solidarity Day rally, police fired tear gas into the settlement, after protesters allegedly threw rocks at them. The camp’s permit expired on June 23, and the next day, more than a thousand police officers cleared out the remaining occupiers. The Poor People’s Campaign ended with 288 protesters arrested for refusing to leave.

OVERCOME Jill Freedman/Getty Images OVERCOME

The media and scholars mostly saw the campaign as a failure. Indeed, PPC yielded no direct change in policy, and the country’s poor population has only expanded in the 50 years since. (In 1968, 25 million people, about 13 percent of the American population, were living in poverty. In 2016, the number is 45 million, or 14.5 percent.)

A STRUGGLE FOR DIGNITY Jill Freedman/Getty Images A STRUGGLE FOR DIGNITY

Media coverage of the campaign at the time focused mainly on the camp’s destitute conditions. “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 daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless,” New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin wrote in 1968.

PROUD DEFIANCE Jill Freedman/Getty Images PROUD DEFIANCE

But the protesters, amid difficult circumstances, understood that they were not there to beg, but to assert their rights. Their idealistic activism — and Freedman’s humanizing portrayal of it — brought higher visibility to the American underclass. Here, Rev. Fredrick Douglas Kirkpatrick, a Baptist minister who was an associate of King in the SCLC, and fellow occupiers play music at Resurrection City.

‘JUST A CITY’ Jill Freedman/Getty Images ‘JUST A CITY’

The photographer herself remembered Resurrection City like this: “Crowded. Hungry. Dirty. Gossipy. Beautiful. It was the world, squeezed between flimsy snow fences and stinking humanity. There were people there who’d give you the shirt off their backs, and others who’d kill you for yours. And every type in between. Just a city.”