A resident of Resurrection City sits in his shelter.
A resident of Resurrection City sits in his shelter. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Robert Houston

Weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, thousands of demonstrators came to D.C. to create Resurrection City, a shantytown on the National Mall built to demand government action on poverty.

In the early spring of 1968, Kenneth Jadin and his friend John Wiebenson, who lived a couple of blocks from each other in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, were about to meet one of their heroes: Martin Luther King Jr.

Jadin and Wiebenson were both architecture professors—Jadin at the District’s historically black Howard University, and Wiebenson at the University of Maryland, just northeast of the city. These young, unknown academics, who were both white, got an audience with King because of their involvement in a campaign that King was spearheading, the Poor People’s Campaign.

After fighting for desegregation and the right to vote, King saw economic justice as the next chapter in the civil rights movement. Black Americans could not be fully equal, he believed, until they had more economic security. Activist Marian Wright and King decided to rally poor people of all races to descend on Washington and petition for an Economic Bill of Rights, ensuring full employment, a living wage, and more low-income housing.

King described the campaign as ‘‘the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” More darkly, he thought it was the only alternative to the race riots that had shaken the country the previous summer.

Wiebenson and Jadin were planning an encampment where the demonstrators could stay. This shantytown would outlast the big march, serving as a base for activists to petition Capitol Hill and federal agencies through the summer. It would also be a visceral reminder of the plight of the poor, right on the doorstep of the U.S. government.

Their anticipated meeting with King never took place. On the evening of April 4, King was shot and killed on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

But the Poor People’s Campaign moved ahead, now under the leadership of King’s successor Ralph Abernathy. The young designers sketched out their plans for what would be called Resurrection City: an instant city formed of strangers of every race, age, and faith, from every part of America. Its brief, unlikely existence is the subject of City of Hope, an exhibition on display through December at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

(Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Robert Houston)

It wasn’t as big as the Bonus Army protest of 1932, when tens of thousands of veterans camped out by Washington’s Anacostia River, demanding their overdue bonuses be paid. But Resurrection City is significant as one of the few examples in U.S. history of a live-in protest on the National Mall, and it was the longest-running one to date.

Although the campaign didn’t achieve its political ends, it still offers lessons on the planning of temporary settlements, and it illustrates both how powerful and how fluid the symbolism of protest can be. It’s also worth examining as a kind of forerunner of the long-term encampments of the Occupy Wall Street movement, though the Poor People’s Campaign was more premeditated and hierarchical.

In ’68, Jadin and “Wieb,” as he was known, began the project without a crucial piece of information: where this new city would be located.

“Wieb and I talked about it. The big question was, where was everybody going to come?” Jadin recalled in a recent interview with CityLab. With the help of Tunney Lee, an architect based in Boston, Jadin scoured the D.C. area for sites that would be large enough. Options included a cemetery, an airfield, land cleared for the Southeast Freeway (then under construction), and the Southwest D.C. waterfront.

The meeting with King was to have focused on site selection. At that point, the National Mall had seemed like a long shot. But the general mood of anger and despair that followed King’s murder—which flared into six days of unrest in D.C.—changed things. Walter E. Fauntroy, a Washington pastor and civil-rights leader, realized the campaign had an opportunity to press its cause with skittish federal officials.

“Reverend Fauntroy said, ‘We’re going on the Mall. There’s no way they can refuse us now,’” said Jadin.

Activists secured a permit from the federal government to put a tent city on the Mall for six weeks. The Department of the Interior gave them a long, narrow strip of greensward on the south side of the Reflecting Pool, near the Lincoln Memorial.

Aerial view of Resurrection City, with the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center (under construction) in the background, May 1968. (Barry Thumma/AP)

In early May, marchers began to set out from their hometowns. Caravans of cars and buses departed from Mississippi, Memphis, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Most famous was the “Mule Train,” a caravan of mules and wagons that started in Mississippi and wound its way through Alabama and Georgia to Atlanta, where humans and animals alike boarded a train to Alexandria, Virginia. From there, the Mule Train clip-clopped the last several miles into Washington.

The Mule Train in Washington, en route to the Mall. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Laura Jones © Laura Jones)

In the days and weeks before the marchers came, the planners got down to work. Wiebenson, Jadin, and their collaborators—now the campaign’s official Structures Committee—weren’t sure how many people to expect: Estimates ranged from 3,000 to 15,000. So they began with what they knew, or could anticipate. As Wiebenson wrote in an article on Resurrection City the following year:

Our basic assumption about the residents grew out of the fact that they were coming from diverse backgrounds to dwell, briefly, in a community imbedded in what would be for them an alien environment. Therefore, we felt they would need the City’s formal and programmatic framework to be both complete and explicit. This framework would have to respond to a wide variety of needs as the residents would require not only arrangements for security and health, but also conditions that facilitated neighborly relationships.

People who had traveled hundreds of miles to a new place, and mostly didn’t know each other, would not feel at ease or safe in a half-formed, chaotic environment, the committee realized. So an explicit, regular plan was favored, with facilities to be as complete as possible upon the residents’ arrival.

Detail of a manuscript by John Wiebenson, “An Outline of Resurrection City as Used.” (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Abigail Wiebenson & sons, John, Derek & Sam in honor of John Wiebenson)

The city’s plan (above) was straightforward. A “public way” ran down the middle of the site from east to west, dividing the strip of land into two separate dwelling zones. All along this central spine were public spaces and services, including a social services tent with donated clothing; a dining tent; a security tent; and meeting tents. In the middle of the way stood the tent that served as City Hall.

Yet this framework contained a hierarchy of spaces. Dwellings would be arranged into squares of about 200 people, each with a leader’s shelter at the entrance. This square would be further broken down into four U-shaped “compounds,” of nine dwellings or about 50 residents each, plus a shower and toilet. The idea was to foster neighborliness while mapping out zones allowing different levels of privacy, from the very private individual shelter to the totally public “Main Street.”

Then came the challenge of designing and building the shelters themselves. How could a small group of volunteers produce housing for thousands, on an extremely tight budget, in a matter of weeks?

Because of time pressure and a dearth of skilled labor, the best course seemed to be for the volunteers to prefabricate many components in advance, which residents could then put together themselves. After considering various designs, the committee decided on an A-frame made out of two-by-fours, with plywood boards for roof and floor panels. “A triangle is a very stable form,” Jadin observed, tenting his hands as he spoke.

John Wiebenson (in glasses) and others building an A-frame structure. Photo by Thomas O’Halloran (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Abigail Wiebenson & sons, John, Derek & Sam in honor of John Wiebenson)

Jadin, Wiebenson, and their team, including students of Jadin’s from Howard, got help from the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in Northeast Washington. On the monastery’s grounds, volunteers assembled roof and floor frames, which were then trucked to the Mall. When marchers began to show up, trained “foremen” and local volunteers helped them assemble the components.

A woman carries a piece of plywood during construction of the dwellings. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Robert Houston)

About 2,800 people ended up moving onto the Mall. From the beginning, it was a real city-within-a-city, where a complex sequence of activities played out daily. Volunteers dished up regular meals. Kids ran and played in the Coretta Scott King Day Care Center. There was a barbershop and a bakery; there were concerts and teach-ins. The city even had its own ZIP code: 20013.

And then the skies opened up.

A flooded tent. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Robert Houston)

That summer, it rained and rained in Washington. Rain fell on more than 20 of the 43 days that Resurrection City stood. It cratered the Mall with puddles and turned the public way into a mud slick. As conditions deteriorated, people moved out, until a scant 500 remained.

Meanwhile, security problems escalated. There were reports that residents had attacked police officers and tourists on the outskirts of the camp. A few days before its permit expired, someone allegedly threw a fire bomb. Police came in the next morning with tear gas. Then they cleared out Resurrection City. Any unclaimed possessions were left at Washington’s Navy Yard.

***

As an anti-poverty movement, the Poor People’s Campaign was mostly a failure. ‘‘Poor People’s Drive Makes Gains, but Fails to Reach Goals,’’ The New York Times reported soon after Resurrection City was broken up. Gerald Ford, then leader of the House of Representatives, said the campaign had had “no noticeable impact” on Congress. It did count a few modest achievements, such as qualifying 200 counties for surplus food distribution.

Most senior leaders of the SCLC never lived in Resurrection City. They stayed in hotels, and spent their days lobbying officials rather than at the camp, which some demonstrators resented. One rising star in the SCLC was a constant presence, however, at least at the beginning. “Jesse Jackson was the only one who was really there all the time,” Jadin remembered. Jackson’s city-manager role helped launch him on the national stage.  

The day-to-day running of the city was fraught. Residents tried to self-organize to make improvements, but “[m]ajor decisions could be made only by Campaign leaders, and they were seldom in the City,” as Wiebenson wrote. Tensions simmered between Northerners and Southerners, rural and urban contingents. There were two resident-led security patrols, the Marshals and the Rangers, but they competed rather than cooperated with each other.

Resurrection City didn’t live up to its designers’ hopes, either. “We didn’t get all of the infrastructure we wanted in,” Jadin said. The architects had originally wanted Main Street to be “a kind of covered arcade,” in Wiebenson’s words, with telephone poles supporting a length of canvas overhead, and they’d hoped to cover walkways with gravel or wooden boardwalks, to stop the oozing mud. But they never had enough materials. They also tried and failed to get plumbing put in for showers (residents had to shower off-site).

Wiebenson’s cluster plan for the shelters became, in the rush of construction, a simpler, more regimented arrangement of long rows. “When people started building the tents, they automatically built them in this very linear fashion,” said Aaron Bryant, the curator of the Smithsonian’s City of Hope, as we stood over a 3-D map of the city. Ironically, this community of non-violent protest looked a lot like an army camp.

Wiebenson had military experience to draw on—he had served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the repeating element of the A-frame was also a link to ’60s counterculture; cheap and easy to build, A-frames were popular then with hippies going back to the land.

Resurrection City did have toilets and electricity, and, more important, it kept people decently housed and fed for weeks. “The shelters were well-conceived and well-executed,” Jadin emphasized. Residents could build them, adapt them, and decorate them however they liked. And they didn’t leak, thanks to the plastic membrane along the top ridge.

Jadin remembers one delighted teenager who told him he had never held a hammer before, yet he’d built a two-story structure. At Resurrection City, said Jadin, “a lot of young people learned you take what you have, and you can make something happen.” Residents energetically pitched in on construction, food services, trash removal, and other tasks, took part in community events, and went to demonstrate at federal buildings.  Despite the tension over security, some of the Marshals worked 20 hours a day. They were young, and it was the most responsibility they’d ever assumed.

“We think about social movements as, ‘Let’s all just get together, maybe through Twitter, and we’ll rally people to meet down at City Hall,’” Bryant noted. “But what’s really important, when you look at all of the literature related to social movements, is that they have a sense of community and they have a sense of culture. That’s why Resurrection City is built not just as a bunch of tents to house protesters. [The sense that] we are all part of the community, we live in the same space, we share the same goals and objectives—that’s reinforced through the culture tent and these dynamic spaces.”

Residents of the city gather around a bonfire at night. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Robert and Greta Houston, © Robert Houston)
Jesse Jackson (right, in patterned shirt) and singer James Brown, to his left, at Resurrection City. Ralph Abernathy is partially visible behind the unidentified man at the microphone. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Laura Jones, © Laura Jones)

Symbolically, Resurrection City was almost a triumph. The caravans and Mule Train were moving billboards for the campaign’s message. Thousands of poor people reclaimed the ceremonial space of the National Mall. Their tents stood yards from the Lincoln Memorial, forming a connection with the Great Emancipator, and with the slain leader who had given an unforgettable speech on the memorial’s steps a few years before. At the same time, the plywood city rebuked a government that built monuments in marble and limestone while neglecting people’s basic needs.

But as the rain wore on, that symbolism got lost; the rising muck and mire now seemed to suggest how intractable poverty was. “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,” Calvin Trillin wrote in The New Yorker.

Bryant wants visitors to City of Hope to think about what it meant to mobilize something like the Poor People’s Campaign before social media existed. It was a vast feat of organization, depending on a matrix of command that extended from SCLC headquarters in Atlanta to church basements and social-service offices around the country.

As the scholar Tali Hatuka notes in an article on Resurrection City, it was precisely this hierarchy that enabled the city to be planned and built as it was: “[T]he campaign was led by a concentrated leadership that had a clear hierarchy between leaders and activists.” By contrast, 2011’s Occupy Wall Street camp at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan was more improvised. Protesters moved in with sleeping bags and tarps (and later, ordinary tents), without a detailed plan. However, as in Washington in 1968, OWS participants soon formed working groups and divided the park into functional zones. Today, it’s hard to imagine a networked movement like the Women’s March or the March for Our Lives building a fixed, semi-permanent urban settlement.

Tourists look at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in November 2011. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Resurrection City’s planners deserve credit for their flexibility and willingness to let go of ideas that proved impractical. Wiebenson (who died in 2003) did not insist that people move their dwellings into clusters, as he would have preferred. James Goodell, another architect-volunteer, focused on a more immediate need than anything design-related—food—and by Jadin’s account did an excellent job supplying meals. These men put themselves at the disposal of the SCLC, answering to Abernathy, his deputies, and ultimately the city’s residents. Their humility as public-interest designers is instructive. (Compare a more recent A-frame project for the poor, the Makoko Floating School in Lagos, which despite glowing press coverage never actually operated as a school, and collapsed in a storm in 2016.)

Jadin has no illusions that poverty in America has been solved: The gap between rich and poor “may be even greater” now, he said. But he believes the fleeting city did make a difference. “For a while there, America really faced the disparity,” he said, “and began to wonder: ‘How did we let this happen?’”

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