Singing Themselves into Existence: A Look at the Music of the Poor People’s Campaign
Two men, one black, one white, sing together in a spirited embrace. The photograph, taken by Robert Houston at a rally for the Poor People’s Campaign is a fitting encapsulation of the six-week movement. Envisioned by King shortly before his assassination, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign was grounded in a spirit of solidarity, of reconciling a troubled past, and of finding the dignity in all people. Nowhere did that emerge more poignantly than in the movement’s songs.
Music from the Campaign featured prominently the interconnected, interpersonal struggles of the nation’s poor. In his analysis of the movement, Aaron Bryant, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, cites the work of sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who asserted that public spheres, like those at the Campaign’s temporary encampment Resurrection City, are fundamentally inclusive and free of status. It was in such an environment—one free of hierarchy—that members of the Poor People’s Campaign gathered to illuminate the plight of the poor, arriving at a collective hope in the process. That is not to say that the six-week campaign did not feature prominent artists. Indeed, Resurrection City performers included Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, C. L. Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jimmy Collier, among others. It was just the solidarity of these participants that brings to mind the words of King, who called on individuals just months before the Campaign to band together resolutely.
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 count, 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,” said Kirkpatrick, “we can learn to like each other.”
It would be naïve to assume, though, that the songs sung at Resurrection City were invariably light and tender. The music of the movement was inclusive, to be sure, but hinged on the reconciliation of a somber past. The Campaign’s freedom songs, in particular, lent protestors a sense of self-determination, a means of confronting the sins that were heretofore invisible. “This shapes an identity in which knowledge of one’s own agency produces a new social consciousness where an individual recognizes they have a voice—musical, political, or otherwise,” Bryant explains. Far from passive, these songs were raw and immediate, calling into question the sins of the past. The lyrics of the freedom song “In Resurrection City,” for instance, include the lines “come to your senses” and “give an account for yesterday.” This intentionality extends to Kirkpatrick’s “We’re Gonna Walk the Streets of Washington,” a track featured in the Smithsonian Folkways album Everybody’s Got a Right to Live, in which listeners are urged to “stop bowin’ and scrapin’ and scratchin.’” These songs, steeped as they were in references to reconciliation, are a visceral reaction to the poverty that plagued the nation. In the words of Rabbi Jacob Rudin, “let our nation at long last rise up in its full and awesome might to confront ignorance, postponement, delay anger, frustration, and destroy them lest they destroy us.” The tenor of these songs, then, was one of defiance and assurance in equal measure.
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.”