Life at Resurrection City

Singing Themselves into Existence: A Look at the Music of the Poor People’s Campaign

Robert Houston

You know, when Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery … Now let us maintain unity.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Among the artists advocating for such a union was musician and civil rights activist Fredrick Douglass Kirkpatrick. A photograph of the singer playing the guitar is among the most striking in the exhibition. Shot from below, Kirkpatrick towers above the viewer, gazing into the distance with an expression both haunted and hopeful. “All Jimmy [Collier] and I are doing is try[ing] to reach folks’ hearts and minds, and change ’em from the inside,” Kirkpatrick said. “If we can learn to like each other's culture, we can learn to like each other.”

Reverend Kirkpatrick - Resurrection City, Wash. D.C.. - 1968

Reverend Kirkpatrick at Resurrection City, Washington, D.C. Photo by Robert Houston

Large crowd listening to a concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Poor People's Campaign. Photo by Robert Houston


More important still is the self-worth members of the Poor People’s Campaign sought - a self-worth long denied them. This theme emerges elegantly in the lyrics of “In Resurrection City:”

We left behind hopelessness
For we were tired of pity
We seek only true dignity
In Resurrection City

One needs only to hear these lyrics to appreciate the storied struggle of the Poor People’s Campaign. The nation’s least fortunate gathered in Washington not for spectacle but for solutions, not for sensationalism but for sustenance. These were a people seeking work and pay for that work - aims that would, as they saw it, lend them respect long overdue. “Songs of the movement,” Bryant writes, “helped individuals to speak their identities and sing themselves into existence.” A review of the movement’s music, then, is a study in resilience, in the might of the masses to take up a cause and weave it into song. As Chicano rights activist Reies Tijerina put it in the throes of the campaign, “Let us together raise / the voice / the hope of the poor.”