Today’s blog was written by Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Textual Processing at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
The boycotts, protests, and marches of the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act (1965). These pieces of legislation assisted with the ending of Jim Crow and provided protection to African Americans attempting to vote. But, despite these achievements, there were still significant economic barriers.
In December 1967, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced the Poor People’s Campaign. This campaign was to bring attention to unemployment, affordable housing shortages, and poverty in America, regardless of race. The SCLC wanted to use the media to force the federal government into passing legislation that would provide jobs and housing for the poor. They planned for a major demonstration in Washington, D. C. that would kick off this campaign on April 22, 1968.
Just before the planned demonstration in late April, King and members of the SCLC went to Memphis, Tennessee to support a group of black sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and working conditions. The strike began on February 11, 1968, after Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death in a garbage compactor accident. Over 1,300 black men fought against years of mistreatment by the officials at the Memphis Department of Public Works during this strike. King was there to support their cause and addressed their concerns in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple on the evening of April 3, 1968. The following day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
SCLC decided to continue with the Poor People’s Campaign under the leadership of Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The demonstration in Washington, D. C. included the construction of a temporary city, where demonstrators would stay until their demands were met by Congress. By the middle of May, nearly 5,000 people had relocated to the temporary tent city on the National Mall. Resurrection City became home to many of the nation’s poor. Donations, materials, and labor to construct this city came from national churches and schools. Several of the residents claimed that the housing was much better than where they were currently residing. Resurrection City even had its own zip code, and several activists and entertainers visited the residents, including Stokely Carmichael, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and Washington, D.C.’s mayor Walter Washington.
From the beginning, Resurrection City experienced numerous challenges. First of all, there was an unusual amount of rainfall in the area. The rain-soaked city had to deal with flooding, bugs, and muddy conditions that created additional frustrations and tensions among residents. Some decided to leave Resurrection City due to the difficult conditions. Also, many of the residents did not fully follow King’s vision of non-violent protest. They confronted police and elected officials, and also threatened onlookers and tourists in the area. Leaders of SCLC sensing an abrupt end to the demonstration, decided to hold one last public event on June 19, 1968 (Juneteenth), to reaffirm the original intention of Resurrection City. Over 50,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for Solidarity Day. This event was the last attempt to bring forth the issues of economic inequality. Three days later, Resurrection City was shutdown. It lasted six weeks.
During this anniversary year of Resurrection City, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has debuted an exhibit City of Hope, featuring never before published color photographs of life in the City.