Rev. Ralph Abernathy
and Other Demonstrators at the Poor People's Campaign
Image Ownership: Public Domain
The Poor People's Campaign (PPC) was created on December
4, 1967, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address the
issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor, and the impact of
poverty on the lives of millions of Americans.
Unlike earlier efforts directed toward helping African Americans gain
civil rights and voting rights, SCLC and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., now addressed issues that impacted all who were poor regardless of racial
background. Their immediate aim was to
secure Federal legislation ensuring full employment and promoting the
construction of low-income housing to raise the quality of life of the nation's
The SCLC planned a nationwide march on Washington on April 22, 1968, to focus
the nation's attention on this issue and particularly to pressure Congress to
pass legislation to address the employment and housing issues. Unlike earlier marches, SCLC leaders planned
the creation of Resurrection City, a
giant tent city on the Mall in Washington, D.C., where demonstrators would
remain until their demands were met.
When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, movement
leaders debated whether to go forward with the planned demonstration. They chose to continue the march with King's
lieutenant, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, as its new leader. The march date was postponed to May 12, 1968, though a few
hundred people arrived in Washington
on the original date. The first week, May 12-29, brought a wave of nearly 5,000
demonstrators. During the second week Resurrection
City was completed.
The protestors, people from a wide range of
racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—Native Americans from
reservations, Latinos from the Southwest, impoverished whites from West
Virginia, as well as rural and urban blacks—came together and spread the
message of the campaign to various Federal agencies. They also disrupted life in Washington to try and force the government
to respond. At its peak, the number of protestors reached nearly 7,000 but
still far short of the expectation of 50,000 people.
The march was also marred by weather and leadership
divisions. An unusual downpour of rain
made the ground turn to mud causing the tents to weaken, and eventually forcing
people to leave. Tension among the demonstrators themselves caused violent
outbreaks and undermined the effectiveness of PPC leadership. The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy,
a presidential aspirant and one of the PPC's principal supporters in Congress,
on June 5, 1968, sealed the fate of the campaign. Resurrection City closed two weeks later on June 19, 1968.
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