Forty-eight years ago today, on April 9, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s casket made a three-mile journey from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia to a public service at Morehouse College. The Poor People’s Campaign, his unfinished project to unite the nation’s poor across racial lines, was about to begin.
In King’s absence, planning and organizing for the PPC continued under the leadership of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, but this movement for economic justice — a little-known aspect of King’s legacy — now sits on a forgotten shelf of history, relegated to memento sales on eBay.
Artist and filmmaker Kate Haug wants to refresh our collective memory.
From April 9 to June 24, Haug’s project News Today: A History of the Poor People’s Campaign in Real Time occupies the Outer Sunset storefront space Irving Street Projects in the form of a deeply researched exhibition of historical visual materials. The small room is filled with framed documents, AP photos, models and reproductions tied to Resurrection City, the massive culmination of the PPC, a 3000-person, six-week-long encampment on the Washington Mall.
“My whole goal for the show is to reintroduce this information and recirculate it,” Haug says. She wants the PPC’s tactics and demands — for fair wages, access to health care and education and for the government’s attention to its most vulnerable population instead of a costly overseas war (Vietnam) — to show us the issues our nation faces today are part of an ongoing struggle.
“I find the images super inspiring because it makes me feel connected,” Haug says. “It makes me feel like this has been a project that people have been trying to work on and address for decades.”
News Today functions as a visual timeline of the PPC — beginning with a black and white photograph of Marion Wright testifying in 1967 about anti-poverty programs and ending with images of Resurrection City being bulldozed in 1968. Beneath each image in the show, Haug’s precise captions clearly detail the significance of a given historical moment.
“I’ve taken a lot of different texts from different sources to underline King’s message,” Haug says. “A lot of his economic message hasn’t been absorbed by general culture and I think it’s a real disservice to his legacy.”
The “people” of the campaign, recruited and trained in nonviolent protest by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), came from the poorest parts of the US, many journeying by symbolic mule-led wagons to Washington, D.C.
There, the PPC established 15 acres of plywood and tent housing, a town hall, a food program and sanitation and health facilities beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Plagued by days of nonstop rain and muddy, damp conditions, the adults journeyed each day without fail to Capitol Hill, the agriculture and welfare departments, to lobby for their economic rights.
“We’re all in Washington to make ourselves visible to an America which denies that we exist,” said one white organizer in a June 13, 1968 Jet magazine article.
Haug pays particular attention to the ways in which popular media depicted Resurrection City. A 1968 LIFE magazine article called the encampment a “scar on the picture-postcard beauty of downtown Washington, D.C.”
This and other opinions of the day are available to exhibition visitors in faithful reproductions of Jet, LIFE and Look magazines, printed by artist Raphael Villet for distribution at Haug’s show.
In Haug’s retelling of the PPC, the emotional high point (positioned opposite a panoramic retelling of the emotional and physical devastation following King’s assassination) was Solidarity Day, held on June 19, 1968. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people gathered on the Washington Mall for talks by SCLC leaders, Native American activist Martha Grass and politician Eugene McCarthy.
Like any images of a mass social justice gathering, the pictures of Solidarity Day are powerfully optimistic, even today. But five days later, the demonstration’s National Park Service permit expired and Resurrection City “got bulldozed and forgotten,” says Haug. Certain gains were made by the campaign, but nothing at the scale and impact King intended with his “economic bill of rights.”
The artist hopes News Today, filled to the brim with hours of reading material and hundreds of carefully selected images, will inspire visitors to become as passionate about this moment in history as she is. “Because so many people don’t know anything about this, I just wanted to have a forum for people to come in and read these texts,” say Haug.
She has no sense of ownership over the material she spend the last year gathering. “Take this information,” she says. “Please.”
News Today: A History of the Poor People’s Campaign in Real Time opens April 9, 2-4pm and is on view through June 25 on Saturdays 1-5pm, and by appointment. For more information about a series of talks during the exhibition visit irvingstreetprojects.org.