The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often described poverty and prejudice as related enemies, and in the last few months of his life, he called publicly for a national demonstration by the poor that would “confront the power structure massively.”
The Poor People’s Campaign was an effort to do precisely that, not with just a march but with an extended occupation of the National Mall in Washington. Organized by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — and led by Ralph Abernathy after Dr. King’s assassination — the campaign brought around 3,000 people from all over the country to a spit of land that would soon be drenched by rains, and filled with wooden shanties and varied attempts at utopian do-it-yourself collectivism.
They called it Resurrection City. It was an urban area taking up 15 acres near the mall’s Reflecting Pool.
The first demonstrators arrived on May 12, 1968, on buses from Mississippi. An architect designed rudimentary tents and wooden structures for temporary residents, and then came a city hall, a general store, a health clinic and a handful of celebrity visitors, including Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand.
The New York Times assigned Faith Berry, an African-American author, to visit the camp near the end of its six-week run. George Tames, a staff photographer in Washington, took hundreds of photos there. A handful of them ran with Ms. Berry’s article, which explored the camp’s struggle to cohere as an ad hoc society of people of different races with varied demands and overwhelming needs.
The published photos generally captured the messy end of the camp. Resurrection City’s failures — from illness to theft and racial conflict — dominated the coverage of the time.
Calvin Trillin captured it best when he wrote in The New Yorker that June: “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.”
The images shown here present an alternative, and more well-rounded, portrait.
First, there is an image showing one of the camp’s many speakers. The camp’s public address system was used to announce everything from campsite meetings and emergencies to long-distance phone calls, but it was also where Abernathy and others sought to rally residents, and remind them of the cause.
The other images show life in the camp at its most calm, humane and mundane — two women chatting inside a tent; a bit of barbering, a bit of (free) health care; and some of the homes and homemade messages intended to define the camp on its own terms.
These photographs, never published until now, show neither simple success, nor failure. They are less pretty than powerful, as a testament to idealism and its challenges — evidence of our continual urge to gather and make demands on Washington, wherever and whenever needed.