The Second Phase of Civil Rights: Photographs of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

Coretta Scott King with campaign organizers, including SCLC leader Ralph Abernathy locking arms to her left. Photo taken from the Jack Rottier Collection.

In December of 1967, when nearly 15 percent of all Americans and 40 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began organizing a national campaign against poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign was to inaugurate a new phase of civil rights extending the struggle for racial equality to the cause of economic justice in America’s slums. On April 4, 1968, while campaigning for black sanitary workers in Memphis, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Just a few weeks later the SCLC and King’s grief-stricken widow, Coretta Scott, decided to push ahead with the campaign anyway. The next month, thousands of demonstrators gathered at the National Mall demanding federal action to alleviate poverty as SCLC leaders, joined by the National Welfare Rights Organization, lobbied Congress to introduce an “economic bill of rights” that would include $30 billion for the creation of employment programs and low-income housing and a guaranteed minimum annual income for all Americans.

Demonstrators on the National Mall. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection. Photo © SEPS

On May 12, 1968 the first wave of demonstrators poured into Washington, DC from across the East Coast and Midwest. Over the following weeks, they erected an encampment of makeshift huts on the National Mall, dubbed “Resurrection City,” where they resided for the duration of the campaign. In addition to Coretta Scott King, the SCLC, and the National Welfare Rights Organization, numerous activist groups and leaders joined the campaign, including Jesse Jackson, members of the United Auto Workers, and the DC chapter of the New York-based anarchist group, “Up Against the Wall.” Campaigners occupied the National Mall for over a month, enduring heavy rains as they lobbied congress and marched through Washington spreading awareness of the cause. But after suffering a series of setbacks—from muddy conditions and a lack of press coverage to conflicting strategies and the assassination of Robert Kennedy—demonstrators lost morale, and the campaign died out. Resurrection City closed down on June 19th.

Jesse Jackson addressing a crowd on the Mall. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection. Photo © SEPS

Though less prominent than the Vietnam War protests of the late 60s and less successful than the Civil Rights movement of the early 60s, the Poor People’s Campaign evinced a widespread commitment to ending poverty in America and deserves a place in the public memory.

The photographs displayed here contribute to the preservation of that memory. They were selected from the extensive Ollie Atkins Collection and the recently acquired Jack Rottier Collection, which document politics and culture in Washington, DC from the 1950s through the 1970s. A finding aid for the Rottier photographs has recently been completed, and the collection is now available for research. Both collections are open to the public and can be accessed at Special Collections and Archives.

The National Welfare Rights Organization marching to end hunger. Photo from the Jack Rottier Collection.

Family of hippie activists camped out at Resurrection City. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection. Photo © SEPS

View of the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument with Resurrection City on the left. Photo taken from the Jack Rottier Collection.

Mary Elsie Fox Photograph Collection

A new finding aid is available for the Mary Elsie Fox Photograph collection. This collection came to Special Collections from a donor that discovered the photographs inside of a discarded scrapbook. The photographs remained unprocessed for several years following the donation, but graduate student intern Kate Norman recently processed the collection and created a finding aid that you can view here. Kate is a student in the History 690 Archives Administration class taught by Joel Wurl in the George Mason University Department of History. Part of the course requirement is that students complete a short practicum at a local repository. Another student in the class, Maria Forte, completed finding aids for the Northern Virginia Planning collection and the Shelley A. Krasnow papers.

East German Poster Collection Political Series Finding Aid

Since January Special Collections and Archives staff have processed a portion of the East German Poster Collection thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The first series-level finding aid on the political posters is available here. Project assistants Lauren Shutt and Sean Tennant cataloged each poster individually using spreadsheets that are imported into a database by Jordan Patty, the processing archivist. They are also using a digital camera to take low resolution reference images of a sample of the posters so that those images can be linked to the finding aids. Catalogers Manon Theroux and Friedgard Cowan verified personal names (of both poster artists and political figures) and organizations (not an easy task!) and provided likely subject headings. We hope to complete the performing arts series and the film series soon.

  Keine neuen Zähne für diese Hyäne/USA?Raketen aus Westeuropa raus! (“No new teeth for these hyenas/USA? Rockets from West Europe get out!”)
Poster features close-up of hyena from John Heartfield’s Krieg und Leichen ? Die Letzte Hoffnung der Reichen (War and corpses? the last hope of the rich).  White teeth resembling missiles are superimposed on the hyena’s mouth. 81″ x 59″, 1982. From the East German poster collection political series, 1943-2009, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries.

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