City of Hope and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign: Poverty, Protests, and Photography

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Scholars have produced rich materials on the civil rights movement since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. These resources generally offer the familiar narratives of the period, as they relate to King’s earlier campaigns as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This includes research on demonstrations in Alabama, Mississippi, Washington, and Memphis. Few studies offer insights on King’s final crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign, however.

As an original contribution to civil rights research, the following study offers an overview of King’s antipoverty crusade to contextualize the movement’s impact on America’s past and present. This study presents new insights on the movement by introducing previously undiscovered and unexamined archival materials related to the campaign and Resurrection City, the encampment between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial that housed campaign participants.

Photographs, architectural drawings, and other visual materials supplement evidence collected from primary documents and other archival sources. While the investigation of written records and printed materials helps the study construct a chronology of events to frame a historical narrative of the campaign, graphic materials presented in the study add eyewitness perspectives and visual evidence to help shape the study’s conclusions.

Perceptions of the Poor People’s Campaign were unfavorable as media coverage fed national fears of riots and civil disorder. Additionally, national memory recorded the efforts of the campaign’s leadership as inadequate in filling the void left by King’s assassination. King’s antipoverty campaign, however, had its merits. It was a microscope on poverty and a critique that focused public attention on poverty nationwide. It was a catalyst to important federal and grassroots programs that laid the groundwork for later legislation and social change. The campaign was also a precursor to subsequent civil and human rights movements. In addition to bringing social concerns related to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic justice to the public fore, King’s antipoverty crusade introduced age, gender, and quality-of-life issues to a national discourse on equality. Additionally, the campaign represented a change in sociopolitical activism as protest movements shifted from civil rights to human rights campaigns. Equally important, however, the campaign was the final chapter of King’s life and, conceivably, his most ambitious dream.