“Our Last and Best Hope”: Revisiting Women’s Role in the Poor People’s Campaign

By Angelica Aboulhosn | March 16, 2018
© Jill Freedman

A crowd stands defiantly behind the silhouette of a police officer’s baton. From the sea of protestors, a woman stands apart, her foot closest to the officer and the viewer. Far from a mere follower, the woman pictured is as much a part of the protest as the men by her side. The photograph, captured by Jill Freedman at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, a six-week march on Washington to protest economic inequality, reveals much about the role of women at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. The women of the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City, the encampment protestors built on the National Mall, were exemplary in their appeal for equality, intergenerational conscience, and strong grassroots ties.

Central to the cause was Marian Wright, a lawyer of astounding veracity, who in 1967 testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty. Wright, intent on evaluating the impact of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” urged nine US senators to visit with poor families in Mississippi and see for themselves the nation’s deep-seated poverty. It was only after those visits that Senator Robert Kennedy advised Wright to meet with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to launch a nationwide coalition in Washington—a coalition that would become Dr. King’s final crusade.

Though King did not live to see the Poor People’s Campaign take shape in Washington, his wife Coretta Scott King surely advanced his civil rights cause, advocating as she did for guaranteed jobs to all who wanted one. “What good is the legal right to sit in a restaurant if one cannot afford the price of food?” Mrs. King’s poignant question, predicated on an unwavering belief in the rights of every human being, captures candidly the nation’s deep-seated divisions. For Mrs. King and others, it was only by recognizing and bringing to light the plight of the country’s poor that they were able to effect change on a national scale. Freedman captures that almost romantic egalitarianism in her photographs—images in which everyone is treated with the same attention, admiration, even. “The people in Resurrection City were some of the best folks I ever met in my life,” Freedman writes in Jill Freedman: Resurrection City, 1968, “Black, White, Hispanic, Indian…This was about being human.”

Young women marching down a street

"Resurrection City: Untitled," NMAAHC

© Jill Freedman

But more telling in a review of the Campaign was the role women played in carrying forward its tenets. As Mrs. King put it, women held a disarmingly simple but altogether fundamental place in not only championing the cause of the poor but also in passing on its core values—values of resistance and resilience—to future generations. As Mrs. King put it, “since women have been entrusted with the sacred task of giving birth and rearing children, transmitting the values of the cultural heritage of the nation, we have a special commission at this time to nurture, protect, and save their lives from destruction.” It was precisely because of their roles as mothers or strong family ties, then, that many women in the campaign lent their time and energy to the Campaign. Margaret A. Dodson-Turner, for instance, taught at the National Capital Area Child Daycare Association, which organized a program for preschool children at Resurrection City. Dodson-Turner, who worked a full-time job in addition to her teaching, appreciated the urgency of country’s poverty problem. “The plight of these children was too critical to ignore,” Dodson-Turner said. “It was gratifying to help the children in some small way and to be part of this historic moment.”

Equally important were the far-reaching grassroots ties of these women activists. Johnnie Tillmon, who founded the organization Aid to Needy Children Mothers Anonymous and later chaired the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), was particularly successful in mobilizing communities to advocate for the country’s neediest. Tillmon witnessed firsthand the powerlessness that welfare recipients in Los Angeles experienced and being of a strategic persuasion, was able to gather and dissipate communities on their behalf with dizzying speed. Like Tillmon, many women during the Campaign “represented an intermediate layer of governance that played a crucial role in social movement mobilization on a national scale,” Aaron Bryant, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture exhibition “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign,” explained. It was the women of the Campaign, then, that played a pivotal role in bringing together communities to advocate for change. “As far as I’m concerned,” Tillmon said, “the ladies of the NWRO are the front-line troops of women’s freedom. Both because we have so few illusions and because our issues are so important to all women—the right to a living wage for women’s work, the right to life itself.”

Women marching down the street

"Resurrection City: Untitled," NMAAHC

© Jill Freedman

The women of the Poor People’s Campaign, each fighting for equality, advancing a longstanding vision, and mobilizing networks, reveal much about the spirit of those six weeks in Washington.

“I firmly believe our last and best hope for a future of brotherhood and peace lies in the effective use of woman power,” Mrs. King asserted.

In another of Freedman’s photos from the Campaign a line of women, black and white, young and old, march together on the National Mall, arms linked. Seeing these protestors, united as they are in a powerful plight, underlines the strength of women, of people, joined together to envision and effect change.