A "City" fights to end poverty

Civil rights leaders and others gather in nation’s capital to demand change 

They came by train. Some traveled by bus. Others made the long, slow trek in covered wagons led by mules. But no matter where they came from, those who journeyed to the nation's capital in May 1968 were there for a common purpose: to bring attention to the plight of America's neediest, and to demand that leaders take action.

Drawn by the message of the Poor People's Campaign - organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as an extension of the civil rights movement - more than 6,000 Americans descended upon the National Mall. They were there to join others demanding a bill of economic rights providing employment, income and housing for the nation's poor. The diverse crowd erected tents and built plywood houses, and many would set out daily for government offices. For a few weeks, "Resurrection City" was ground zero in the struggle for economic equality.

Photographs show that at least for a time, the makeshift metropolis thrived. There was food, health care, schools, a City Hall and even a mayor. But the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and uncooperative weather soon spelled the end of the encampment. Torrential rains turned the city into a sea of mud; violence began to erupt and there was an alarming lack of toilets and showers.

On June 19, "mayor" Ralph Abernathy led a nonviolent march through the streets of Washington D.C. More than 50,000 people walked and were later addressed by Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Campaign's most prominent organizer. Despite the push, no economic bill of rights was passed. The permit to assemble was revoked and police bulldozed the camp.

More than 40 years later, members of the Occupy movement pitched tents in various cities across the country, including Oakland. Although different in scale, tone and spirit, the Occupy camps became important centers of protest for those struggling to end economic disparity - much like "Resurrection City."

Photo courtesy of Oakland North's coverage of Occupy Oakland by Amina Waheed and Byrhonda Lyons.

Walking through The 1968 Exhibit, it's not unusual to see people standing before the large image of a makeshift city on the grounds of the nation's capital. And it's not surprising to hear some commenting that they never knew it existed; it seems as if the attention paid to other milestones of the civil rights movement has mostly eluded "Resurrection City" until recently. But whether it's your first time hearing about it or not, chances are you won't forget it.