By Cody Hefner
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most ambitious dream drew thousands to the National Mall in Washington, DC. It sparked a six-week protest and camp along the edge of the Reflecting Pool and implored leaders to take action on the growing divide in America. It united people across races, ethnicities and regions. It demanded an end to poverty.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is illuminating the often-overlooked history of the multicultural movement to confront poverty that redefined social justice and activism in America. Solidarity Now! 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened recently at the Freedom Center.
In the 1960s, the United States emerged as a global model of wealth and democracy, an estimated 25 million Americans lived in poverty – nearly 13% of the population. From the elderly and underemployed to children and persons with disabilities, poverty affected people of every race, age and religion. In response, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, organized the Poor People’s Campaign as a national human rights crusade. Solidarity Now! features photographs, oral histories with campaign participants and organizers and an array of protest signs, political buttons and audio field recordings collected during the campaign.
“The Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King is often thought of as a movement about race, but it was more. It was a movement about equity, about freedom – including freedom from hunger and want – for all people,” said Woodrow Keown Jr. president and COO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “We’re proud to present Solidarity Now! to our community so we can show that equity was never about just some of us, but about all of us.”
Solidarity Now! explores the significance of the tactics and impact of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign that drew thousands of people to build a protest community on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. For nearly six weeks they inhabited “a city of hope” on 15 acres between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to call the nation’s attention to the crippling effects of poverty for millions of Americans. The protest site was called Resurrection City. Through a 3D map of Resurrection City, guests to Solidarity Now! can examine the planned spaces for housing, a cultural center, city hall, theater stage and essential services, including facilities for food and dining, sanitation, communications, education, medical and dental care and childcare.
As a multiethnic movement that included African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asians and poor Whites from Appalachia and rural communities, the six-week protest community in Washington attracted demonstrators nationwide. The campaign leaders presented demands to Congress, including demands for jobs, living wages and access to land, capital and healthcare. It was the first large-scale, nationally organized demonstration after King’s death in April earlier that year.
“Three generations later and we are still fighting for these same rights,” added Keown. “Our poverty rate remains above 12%. We hope this exhibition may reinvigorate a generation to take up this banner so all people can enjoy equity of resources, access and care; so that we can ensure freedom for all.”
The exhibition title is a reference to the Solidarity Day Rally held June 19, 1968, as a major highlight and capstone for the movement. The rally at the Lincoln Memorial featured speeches by celebrities, activists and campaign organizers as a continuation of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Solidarity Now! 1968 Poor People’s Campaign will be open through June 19 at the Freedom Center – Smithsonian Affiliations institution. The exhibition is included with admission. For more information, visit freedomcenter.org/solidaritynow.