February 7, 2012

In News History: Dateline: Resurrection City

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Marchers walk arm-in-arm in Mississippi during the Poor People's March to Washington. (Ted Polumbaum/Newseum collection)

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A Conestoga wagon used in the Poor People's March to Washington. (Ted Polumbaum/Newseum collection)

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Resurrection City on the National Mall (Ted Polumbaum/Newseum collection)

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Two young boys sit on a makeshift raft that is being pushed by two friends in Resurrection City. (Courtesy Jill Freedman)

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Tents in Resurrection City on the National Mall. (Courtesy Jill Freedman)

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A day care and nursery in Resurrection City. (Ted Polumbaum/Newseum collection)

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A young boy rides a tricycle through Resurrection City. (Ted Polumbaum/Newseum collection)

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Television crews cover the crowd in Washington during the Poor People's Campaign. (Courtesy Jill Freedman)

In the spring of 1968, long before Occupy Wall Street protesters turned city squares into tent cities, hundreds of civil rights activists from across the country occupied the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and set up an encampment of makeshift shacks called Resurrection City.

Resurrection City was the brainchild of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who planned a Poor People's Campaign to emphasize the plight of America's poor. By marching and staging a live-in on the nation's front yard, they hoped to pressure Congress to pass laws that would stamp out poverty.

Weeks before the march, the unthinkable happened: King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tenn. Grieving organizers decided to continue King's legacy and march to Washington.

On May 12, thousands of protesters — whites, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans — marched in the streets of Washington demanding an Economic Bill of Rights that would guarantee jobs and end housing discrimination. The next week, Resurrection City was built.

Like the Occupy Wall Street settlements, Resurrection City functioned as a city-state with its own school, daycare and nursery facility, barber shop, general store and health-care provisions. It even had a City Hall — the Rev. Jesse Jackson was mayor.

The campaign received heavy coverage in the black press, as well as in the mainstream media.

"We used to sing a song in our church — 'Take Your Burdens to the Lord and Leave Them There,'" the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, the new head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said in the May 9, 1968, issue of Jet magazine. "We have decided that we are going to take all our problems, our bodies, our children, the rats and the roaches and everything to the White House and leave them with LBJ."

For six weeks, an estimated 5,000 people called Resurrection City home. It rained continuously, turning the encampment into a muddy, soggy quagmire. Congress ignored the protester's demands. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 6 further dampened their spirits and caused internal dissent.

By the end of June, Resurrection City was bulldozed. Those who refused to leave, including Abernathy, were arrested. An Economic Bill of Rights was never passed.

"I think Resurrection City is remembered as a failure," the Rev. Walter Fauntroy said in a 2008 interview with American Public Media. "But even its failure lifted us to higher ground. At least, that's how I view it."

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