In what would turn out to be his final Sunday sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. preached about poverty and his pivot from the “reform” of civil rights to the “revolution” of human rights. On that last day of March 1968, King shared a story with those gathered in Washington’s National Cathedral about a rich man, referred to as Dives, who turned his back on a poor sickly man named Lazarus, who later died outside his gates. He used the parable told by Jesus to challenge America to “bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”
A year earlier, at a staff retreat of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King had resolved to expand the civil rights struggle. Having recognized the nexus between racism and poverty, he outlined plans for a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience focused on economic inequality and poverty. Moved more than once to tears by deplorable living conditions of Americans barely surviving in urban ghettos, in Appalachian coal towns, at migrant work camps in the West, and on hardscrabble backwoods Southern farms, King sought to mobilize poor people of all races to demand full employment, a guaranteed living wage, affordable housing and better schools.
“We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign,” King said in that last Sunday sermon. “Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. … We are coming to demand government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
They would come in the late spring and summer of 1968, but King wouldn’t be with them. His assassination April 4 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a strike by city sanitation workers, put the entire Poor People’s Campaign in serious doubt. Even prior to his death, a number of former civil rights allies were distancing themselves from King and what they saw as a more contentious agenda, including his then-controversial stance against the Vietnam War and his demand for the “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
“There was a great deal of robust debate,” remembers Marian Wright Edelman, at the time the young director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Office in Mississippi. She said some at the SCLC retreat were adamant about sticking exclusively to civil rights, while others wanted to protest the war and still others thought jobs and education should be the focus. “But it came down to this (poor people’s march) being his last will and wish, and they carried it out.”
Months earlier, Wright Edelman had been instrumental in bringing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to Mississippi, who after seeing firsthand the hunger and malnutrition “got on fire and passionate about doing something about it.” She said Kennedy, too, stressed the need to bring the issue to Congress and the White House. The goal of the Poor People’s Campaign, she said, was to put “poverty on the national agenda.”
With the Rev. Ralph Abernathy newly at the helm of the SCLC and the campaign, activists secured permits to camp on the National Mall — a 15-acre strip eventually populated by about 3,000 people living in tents and rudimentary plywood shelters. The encampment was christened Resurrection City. “Residents” began moving in on May 21 and over the next six weeks would arrive from all corners of the nation by car, bus, rail and, in the case of a group from Marks, Miss. — at the time the poorest town in the nation’s poorest county and the kickoff point of the campaign — by mule train.
Documenting the trip was a 31-year old novice photographer, Roland Freeman.
“We pulled out on May 13 with more than 100 people in somewhere between 15 and 20 covered wagons, made up to look like Conestogas,” recalls Freeman, now 82. He said the wagons, painted with various SCLC campaign slogans, “were in all kinds of conditions, and I could tell that some of them hadn’t been used for years.” In his photo book The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered, Freeman admitted to feeling intimidated by the assignment but soon found his resolve in the “courage, strength, and wisdom” he saw in the people in those wagons — entire families, children, mothers, young activists, and old women and men.
Over the course of the next four weeks, the wagon caravan, which would vary in number because of breakdowns and uncooperative mules, plodded along through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia — a trek of some 500 miles.
“When you pulled out in the morning, you never knew how far you would get,” Freeman said, adding that the obstacles weren’t always animals and equipment. “We got stopped regularly by state, county and town police.”
Upon reaching Atlanta the caravan — people, wagons, and mules — was loaded onto a train headed to just outside Washington. On June 19 the mule train rolled into the capital.
“God must have planned to drop the sky on us because it rained, rained, and rained some more. Everywhere there was mud,” Freeman said of the wagons’ arrival in Washington. Faith Berry, a freelance writer hired by The New York Times to cover life in Resurrection City, wrote at the time: “In mid-May the rains had come, and for the first 19 days of the campaign it rained for 11. … The rains kept coming.”
The miserable wet conditions in the camp were made worse by open hostility from several members of Congress; continual surveillance and meddling by law enforcement, including the FBI; disagreements among the campaign leadership, exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the Native-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and white contingent stayed in a nearby private school; and then Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5 while campaigning for president in California.
“It was a complicated and moving time,” Wright Edelman observed. One of the most moving movements came as Kennedy’s funeral cortege passed through Resurrection City heading to Arlington National Cemetery. “People gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Despite the difficulties, Wright Edelman described the experience of Resurrection City as “a diverse, wonderful mosaic of hopefulness.” She noted that groups prepared position papers every day and went before Congress and to federal agencies to tell their stories and present their demands. And while the campaign fell well short of King’s vision, there were modest accomplishments.
“There was a huge expansion of federal assistance to address hunger,” noted Wright Edelman, who would go on to found the Children’s Defense Fund. This included more money for the school free lunch program, expansion of the food stamp and WIC programs, and the release of surplus food commodities to the poorest communities by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, as Freeman points out, “What we began with the mule train 50 years ago is still unfinished.”
If anything, poverty in America has gotten worse. According to the Census Bureau, in 1968, 25 million people — nearly 13% of the U.S. population at the time — lived below the poverty level. Today that number is close to 47 million, nearly 15% of the population.
In the parable King recounted in his last sermon, the rich man, Dives, went to hell — but not because he was rich. Rather, “because he didn’t see the poor.”
Carl Chancellor is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editorial director at the Center for American Progress.