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Long Before Black Lives Matter, There Was the Poor People’s Campaign

Exclusive Never Before Published Photos from 1968


By Joel Dzodin


Perhaps because I continue to shelter-in-place at home in Israel during the ongoing pandemic, amid the turmoil of the election campaign, it's understandable that I try to make sense of our current political and cultural maelstrom by recalling the tumultuous happenings of the late 1960s, another period when the United States was rocked by civil strife and unrest. The protests that have roiled American cities in 2020 had their antecedents in the 1960s, although the political and economic landscapes have greatly changed since then. This year, an intense national soul-searching has spurred unprecedented numbers of white supporters to join the swelling protests against systemic racism and police brutality, its conjoined twin. Thinking back to the 1968 Poor Peoples’ Campaign, I ask myself what we’ve lost and gained as Americans in the half century since the Washington campaign.


Fifty-two years have flashed by since Martin Luther King Jr. announced the Poor People’s Campaign in November, 1967. In King’s words, he was seeking a “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.” But tragically, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, before his vision was realized. The organizers of the Poor People's Campaign redoubled their determination to go forward with their plans for the nation's poor to converge on Washington DC as a memorial and act of love and devotion to King . His murder was palpable in the smoke-filled air during the spring and summer of 1968, and when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched the initial phase of the campaign, I was determined to participate.


Like many families, mine had been hard hit by the Detroit riots the preceding year, when my father's small grocery store had gone up in flames, and he had lost his livelihood. . One of his black customers had called him at home in tears, crying "Louie, your store is burning." Afterwards, the sight of my father weeping in his gutted shop was part of what compelled me to join the Washington campaign for economic and racial justice. It's a testament to my parents that despite the trauma of losing the store, they never tried to dissuade me from taking part in Dr. King's campaign. My father was able to separate his anger and pain from what his starry-eyed son felt he had to do.


As a 17-year-old, swept up in the events of that time, my photography was an important part of my identity. I tried my best, using humble equipment, to visually capture some essence of the moment and its participants, knowing that we were engaged in something historic and larger than ourselves. And so, despite their technical faults, the photographs which I've curated for half a century in various El Producto cigar boxes have become very meaningful to me. They are both a tangible connection to and an extension of the complex experiences that continue to play a role in how I try to understand our world today. In both abstract and concrete ways, these images help me to frame our present predicaments: our torn-asunder society in the age of MAGA, fake news, and Black Lives Matter. All of this and more. The negatives have been improperly stored in glassine envelopes in a way that would make any decent photographic archivist's hair turn gray. But they've survived in reasonably good condition. They've accompanied me, intact, through five decades of migration and change. But as physical and artistic "property", they remain among my most treasured possessions.


With the benefit of a modern high-megapixel camera, coupled with a vintage 1970s close-up Nikon lens and a jerry-rigged light table, it's been very satisfying being able to "scan" these old negatives. All black and white images were shot with a Yashica-D 120 Twin-lens Reflex camera and processed in Kodak D-76 developer in my basement darkroom. This technology has allowed me to transport myself back to the time when a naive 17-year-old was given a permission note by his mother to be excused from high school classes in Oak Park, Michigan to travel to Washington D.C., to be part of the Resurrection City encampment. And it underscores my terrible capacity for procrastination because many of these images have literally waited 50-plus years to be "printed", a possible record for lengthy post-processing.


So here are scenes from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign, which passed through Detroit, Michigan and made its way to Resurrection City, an encampment of hope, that existed briefly in West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C, from May to June,1968. By and large, these photos have never been seen by a general audience, and the Poor People’s Campaign itself has largely faded from memory. In presenting them here, I hope there is some value in visually revisiting that hopeful moment when people of all races and backgrounds came together to peacefully demand social change and racial, political and economic justice. Perhaps there is merit in visually contrasting what we did then to what many of us are trying to achieve now in 2020.


Martin's Dream:

“I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” --Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) contingent passes through Detroit en route to Washington for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, one of the last major social action protests put in motion by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was slain just a few weeks earlier. This included a large march down Woodward Avenue and unfortunate altercations one evening with the Detroit police.

Detroit, 1968



Oak Park High School (Michigan) strike in support of Black students' demands for creating an Afro-American studies curriculum.


Spring, 1969


Tension in the air.

The national atmosphere in the months following the Poor People's Campaign: in the darkness unleashed by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

George Wallace spoke in Detroit on the evening of October 29, 1968 in Cobo Hall. Things heated up, as angry Wallace supporters cussed-out those who came to demonstrate against their favorite son, chanting: "FU*K YOU HIPPIES!" Violence ensued and the police entered the fray. That was the night when Wallace implored his supporters to "Let the police handle it, ladies and gentlemen. Let the police handle it!,”, as chairs were being flung as weapons.



Poor People's Campaign participants and supporters march down Woodward Avenue and adjacent side streets on May 13, 1968. Only half a century later did I discover a young woman eying me with curiosity at the center left of the frame.



Poor People's Campaign participants and supporters march down Woodward Avenue and adjacent side streets on May 13, 1968. The pain of Dr. King's death a month earlier was still raw and "The Dream" took on added urgency.



"Barracuda," one of the parade marshals, coordinating the orderly movement of Poor People’s Campaign participants and supporters on adjacent side streets near Woodward Avenue on May 13, 1968.



Parade marshals seem concerned during the Poor People's Campaign visit to Detroit on May 13, 1968.



I've long wondered about the story of this man carrying a young child. It wasn't a posed shot, but their stance seemed like a rebuke of the racial divisions of the time.


May 13, 1968



This photo was taken the night that contingents of the SCLC's Poor People’s Campaign reached Detroit from other cities, on their way to protest at Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. The head of the young man standing immediately to the left of Father James Groppi (1930-1985) is bandaged following an injury at the hands of the Detroit police. After assembling in Detroit's Cobo Hall, Father Groppi angrily condemned the actions of the police even as he called on the crowd to remain peaceful but vigilant. I remember the anger in his voice.


May 13, 1968



A contemplative moment at sunset in Resurrection City.


It rained frequently throughout the campaign in Washington D.C. and here we can see that the mud in the walkways between "streets" had already destroyed the grass. It got much worse as time went on. The ad hoc solution to the problem was to "pave" a series of wooden pallets that helped reduce the soiling of shoes and clothes, but the mud grew fetid in the hot, humid, rainy weather.



The muddy "streets" of Resurrection City.



What a typical Resurrection City A-Frame dwelling looked like, constructed from very basic plywood sheeting and some plastic tarp material. Although the exact chronology of my stay is forgotten, I seem to remember it was around the time of Passover, 1968, which extended from April 12 through April 20. Perhaps that why I'm cradling a bottle of Manischewitz Beet Borscht in my hands. Jewish soul food.



A flyer announcing an upcoming musical evening with "Tent City residents, Indians, Spanish-Americans, Bernice Reagon, Pete Seeger, and the Sea Island Singers.” During the campaign, such music events were occasionally held in the afternoon and evening. I was lucky to have been part of that, even once sharing a paper Dixie cup of hot coffee with Pete after one such get-together.



A sing-along with Bernice Reagon, Pete Seeger, and F. D. Kirkpatrick. At one point, my incessant camera work irked Ms. Reagon, who interrupted her singing for a moment to chastise me that I ought to be singing instead of snapping photos.



Silhouette of a white trumpet player from Pittsburgh. Taken during a cultural/musical evening in a darkish tent. In an era where normal film speed maxed out at 400 ASA (~ 400 ISO), interior evening shots without flash were difficult. Fifty years later, I struggled with a very underexposed negative to try and coax out the bit of detail seen here.



One of my favorite portraits from my time in D.C.; a young musician, who along with two other players using a snare drum and a large oil drum, produced some impressive percussive music, including something that sounded like the long riff in Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”



Two Resurrection City residents preparing coffee-can bread loaves at the Bread Tent, operated by Walt Reynolds and his wife Ruth Reynolds, also known as the "God's Eye" bakery. Mr. Reynolds was a computer engineer who had previously set up free bread operations in California. Their efforts at Resurrection City were supported by volunteers, like these two, producing hundreds of loaves of whole wheat bread that were give away to the encampment's residents. I spent some time there as well. It was tasty stuff.



Other residents join in the preparation of loaves at the "God's Eye" bakery and the finished product is seen on the table. The man's button reads "I have a dream.”



Some quality time for quiet artistic expression away from the hubbub of the demonstrations and political activity. The human face of peaceful social action.



A family pauses in front of their tent; a mother with Bible in hand. Another underexposed and difficult negative.



A young girl in Resurrection City. I remember passing by, as her mom got her dressed and ready for a new day. This likely would have been towards the end of my time there, seeing how her boots are covered by the fetid mud that plagued the campaign. A difficult image due to its blown-out highlights (seen in the A-frame's vinyl flaps).



Almost a group portrait, reflecting diverse origins, ages and backgrounds.

Another poorly exposed negative that I've played with, trying to squeeze out some extra detail.

"Pops" Donaldson (the gentleman with the cane) had one of the most photogenic faces I've ever seen. Like Moses, sitting with his people. I remember it was said that he'd traveled north to Resurrection City by mule and wagon.

And for 50-plus years, I've thought the man sitting next to him bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. King, murdered just one month before.



"Pops" Donaldson and others discussing the news of the day.



Another group of residents assembled at the Resurrection City Pavilion.



A gathering at the Pavilion.



Hosea Williams, one of Dr. King's lieutenants, engages with an HEW (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) official who was sent to speak with the march participants.


April 30th, 1968



Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators fill the HEW (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) auditorium on April 30th, 1968.



Some moments later, as the demands to speak directly with Secretary Wilbur J. Cohen grew louder in the HEW auditorium. The man wearing the beaded necklace in the front looks a bit like Stokely Carmichael.



Secretary Wilbur J. Cohen appears and faces the protesters. I remember the raucous cacophony that grew even louder when he entered the room. I've always respected his decision to meet with us; for me, this image reflects his grace under fire.


Washington D.C. street scene during a day of demonstrations. This image melds perfectly with a song on YouTube entitled ""We're Gonna Walk the Streets of Washington" by Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, who shared his message and music with the residents of Resurrection City::


"We're gonna walk the

streets of Washington

We're gonna walk the

streets of Washington

One of these days --

Hallelujah

We're gonna walk the

streets of Washington

One of these days.”

-We're gonna ask for jobs or income {chorus)

-We're gonna petition Lyndon Johnson {chorus)

-We're gonna stop police brutality {chorus)

-Stop -- the rats from eatin' our babies (chorus)

-Stop -- that workin' in the white folks kitchen (chorus)

-Stop -- that bowin' and scrapin' and scratchin·

(chorus)

© Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, 1968



I think of this image as "Martin’s Dreamtime" because although my memories have in some ways remained sharp and vivid despite the passage of time, they've also taken on a feeling of mythical softness and distance.



The End of Resurrection City, July 1968.


At that part of my young life, I visited Washington D.C. often, and so it was that I returned to the site of the Poor People's Campaign encampment, in time to see its final vestiges being plowed under by National Park Service employees.



A Final View of Resurrection City, July 1968.


I lingered there for a while, full of thoughts that remain with me now, 52 years on.


Joel Dzodin is a former Detroiter now living in Israel. At different points in his life he has worked as an archaeologist, an IT Help Desk guy, and an online English teacher to adults around the world. Photography has long been a major passion and theme in his life, since taking his first photos at the age of 6, using a Kodak box camera. A lot of Joel’s photographs focus on the small unexamined details of everyday life, such as the beauty of minute water condensation that forms on cold bottles in the hot Israeli weather.


During Joel’s time in Israel, he has been fortunate to photograph the activities of the NGO PeacePlayers International, Middle East, witnessing firsthand how authentic friendships can be forged between Jews and Arabs despite long-standing and severe religious, cultural and ideological barriers. He is an inveterate hoarder of technological antiques, so that his young children once referred to his home office as "The NASA Control Room."


One of Joel’s major pleasures during normal times is to wander the fields and trails of Israel, stumbling over prehistoric and historic evidence of previous human settlement. During the pandemic, he has had to occupy himself at home by shooting portraits of ants and spiders also sheltering in place, using a mid-1970s Nikon close-up lens adapted for today's digital cameras.

Today, Joel lives near Tel Aviv with his wife Susanne, whom he met on a kibbutz in 1975. They have two adult children, one living in the U.S. and the other in Israel. During the current (second) lockdown, he has to practice social distancing outside with his three grandchildren, two of whom are already speaking English.

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