Poor People's March: 1968
The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 brought thousands to Washington, D.C. to occupy the capital city and stage demonstrations demanding economic justice.

Some historians identify the ultimately unsuccessful campaign as marking the end of the national Civil Rights Movement that began with the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957.

The campaign was planned by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to demand an economic bill of rights and an end to the Vietnam War.

King envisioned using massive civil disobedience to dramatize the plight of poor people, but was assassinated April 4, 1968 before his vision could be realized.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy took control of the SCLC and began steering the Poor People’s Campaign toward a sanctioned event with permits.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government mobilized 20,000 soldiers to prepare for the march and the FBI began its campaign of de-stabilization by recruiting spies, spreading rumors of discontent, potential violence and that marchers would lose government benefits such as welfare and food stamps through their participation.

Meanwhile the SCLC spearheaded a broad spectrum of groups including participation from Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Native Americans as well as the non-violent wing of the peace movement.

Thousands of people participated in nine caravans to Washington, D.C. where the SCLC secured a permit for an encampment on the national mall for a period of six weeks. The last caravan was an emblematic mule train from Mississippi.

On May 21, 1968 what came to be known as Resurrection City was set up near on the grassy area on the south side of the Reflecting Pool. Tents, plywood shelters, walkways, and other necessities of life were erected to house the 3,000 overnight participants that were permitted.

Conditions were miserable due to seemingly endless days of rain that brought up to five inches of standing water in the camp. While security had been organized, there were occasional breakdowns that were widely publicized in the press.

Abernathy organized marches and delegations to lobby Congress through the six-week period. Nearly all were uneventful as well as unsuccessful.

The demands of the Economic Bill of Rights contained five planks:

•"A meaningful job at a living wage"
•"A secure and adequate income" for all those unable to find or do a job
•"Access to land" for economic uses
•"Access to capital" for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses
•Ability for ordinary people to "play a truly significant role" in the government

Abernathy included in the last point the demand for collective bargaining in a tribute to King’s efforts during the Memphis sanitation strike.

The largest event was a “Solidarity Day” held June 19th that brought between 50,000 and 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. where they were addressed by a narrower group of luminaries than King’s 1963 march.

The permit for the encampment ended June 23rd and the following day over 1,000 police swept through the area arresting a total of 288 demonstrators, including Abernathy, without any real resistance from the protesters.

That evening a minor disturbance broke out at 14th & U Streets NW, the location where the riots following King’s assassination in April were sparked.

Authorities sent in police with tear gas, declared a curfew and sent in 450 National Guard troops to patrol the streets.

The camp on the mall was quickly dismantled. An economic bill of rights was never enacted and much of the programs that were in place were swept away in subsequent decades.
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