On June 19, 1968, a long-term anti-poverty demonstration known as Resurrection City reaches its high-water mark. On “Solidarity Day,” over 50,000 people flock to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to protest, sing, hear speeches and demonstrate on behalf of national legislation to address the plight of the American poor. “Today is really only the beginning,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy tells the crowd. “We will not give up the battle until the Congress of the United States decides to open the doors of America and allow the nation’s poor to enter as full-fledged citizens into this land of wealth and opportunity.”
In May 1968, poor people from all over the country came to the National Mall and made temporary homes in plywood shelters, creating a settlement they called Resurrection City. The protest began less than two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and grew out of the Poor People’s Campaign and the campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights, both of which had been major focuses of King’s at the time of his death. The goal was to convince legislators of the need for laws that would lift poor people of all races out of poverty, and to sway public opinion by making the plight of the poor impossible to ignore. Protesters came from all over the country—“caravans” drove from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle while a “Freedom Train” brought people from Memphis and one group from Marks, Mississippi rode mule-drawn wagons.
Marches and demonstrations took place in Washington as more and more activists arrived throughout May, including a Mother’s Day march organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization and led by Coretta Scott King. Ethel Kennedy, wife of Sen. Robert Kennedy, was involved with the demonstrations, and his funeral procession stopped at Resurrection City on June 8, following his assassination on June 5. Businesses, schools and other fixtures of normal life flourished within the settlement, which also saw conflicts stemming from animosities between different groups living there, leadership disputes and the inherent uncertainty of living in makeshift dwellings on the National Mall. During this time, leaders of the movement met and testified before members of Congress. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, dubbed the “mayor” of Resurrection City, sought to lift spirits with his sermons, one of which became famous for the chant of “I am somebody!” which temporarily re-energized the protesters. The original permit issued by the National Parks Service expired a few days before Solidarity Day, but it was extended by four days.
After being moved due to an internal conflict among organizers, Solidarity Day took place on Juneteenth and was attended by over 50,000 people. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King spoke, along with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Native American activist Martha Grass, the president of the United Auto Workers (80 busloads of UAW members were in attendance) and Democratic presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.
The day may well have gone down as a powerful and peaceful day of activism on par with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but the conclusion to the story of Resurrection City was far less inspiring. Allegedly in response to rocks thrown at them from the camp, and with the Parks Service permit expiring, the police moved to evict residents on June 23, firing tear gas into Resurrection City and rounding up its occupants for arrest. One SCLC leader remembered the eviction as “worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama.”
Today, Solidarity Day and Resurrection City are footnotes in the overall story of the civil rights movement, overshadowed by earlier, more successful protests and by the violence and conflict that defined 1968. At the time, however, the settlement by the Reflecting Pool was impossible to ignore—particularly for lawmakers and residents of Washington, D.C.—and regardless of its failure to achieve sweeping social change or anti-poverty legislation, it remains one of the largest and most sustained social justice protests in the history of the United States.
READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline