The National Mall is a seat of democracy, a site for protest, and the home of the Smithsonian Institution. These truths converged in 1968, when antipoverty demonstrators staged a six-week campaign on “America’s front yard.” The Smithsonian had a front seat to “Resurrection City, USA,” the protesters’ name for their encampment. Today, a salvaged mural from the often-forgotten event is back on the Mall, in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The slogans of solidarity inscribed on the mural inspired curators Aaron Bryant (NMAAHC) and Mireya Loza (NMAH) to reflect on the campaign’s multiethnic character, while Kendra Greendeer (NMAI) brings the legacy forward to recount how American Indians and allies traversed the same hallowed ground at a recent march across the Mall.
Communities in Solidarity
Aaron Bryant, Museum Curator, NMAAHC
Martin Luther King Jr.’s final vision was perhaps his most ambitious dream—the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. A continuation of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King’s poverty campaign was a multiethnic, human rights movement in which protesters of different races, cultures, and regions of the country assembled in Washington, D.C., to demand an Economic Bill of Rights.
Despite King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the campaign continued in his honor marking an important transition in U.S. history as the Civil Rights period transformed into an era of human rights and cultural justice movements. Public events began on May 12, and within a week, demonstrators had built a protest encampment along the National Mall, known as Resurrection City. Thousands of protesters occupied the encampment for more than six weeks, after arriving each day in caravans of cars and buses from across the country.
The people built the Many Races Soul Center and painted their souls on Hunger’s Wall.The Poor People’s Campaign: A Photographic Journal Atlanta: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1968.
Demonstrators personalized Resurrection City with slogans that declared the space as their own. As a curator of political and cultural movements, this mural represents to me protesters claiming the National Mall as a site for democracy where they could exercise their political voices and make their presence known. Demonstrators communicated the movement’s most critical concerns in the mural’s symbols of identity and unity. Adorning the plywood walls with multilingual expressions of social and cultural power, they identified themselves and others as allies working in solidarity.
Mireya Loza, Museum Curator, Division of Political History, NMAH
When I look at the Resurrection City mural, my eye is drawn toward the words in the middle of the mural: “Chicano Power.” By the mid-1960s, many Mexican Americans who were frustrated with conservative approaches to Mexican American Civil Rights organized and ushered in a new movement that not only aligned itself in solidarity with the African American Civil Rights Movement but also pushed for more radical racial identities embodied by the term “Chicano.”
For the Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference recognized the common ground African American and Latino communities shared. They reached out to key Chicano activists such as Reies López Tijerina, Bert Corona, Alicia Escalante, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, and others. As Bert Corona would recall in his 1994 biography, Martin Luther King Jr. “understood our particular historical condition, but he also stressed that we needed to come together to correct common abuses.”
Reies López Tijerina led a group from New Mexico, while Corky Gonzales urged Chicanos from Colorado to follow him, and Alicia Escalante and Bert Corona organized California groups. Chicano attendees spoke up about farm labor conditions, land rights, political representation, and educational disparities—concerns that they shared with poor whites, American Indians, African Americans, and others in joining the campaign.
A New Alliance
Kendra Greendeer, Curatorial Resident, NMAI
The Poor People’s Campaign drew people from across the country to Washington, D.C., to protest issues that affected them, including a group of American Indians disputing a court decision over fishing rights in Washington State. The protest was considered a “monumental victory” because it gained media attention and forced the country’s leaders to listen to American Indian concerns.
In 2014, another protest created a new partnership between American Indians and like-minded individuals—cowboys. The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline could have violated tribal sovereignty, resulted in climate change, and caused oil spills and water contamination. Keystone’s preexisting oil pipeline spans from Canada to Texas, and the “XL” pipeline extension would have cut through the states of Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
The Cowboy Indian Alliance commissioned artist Steve Tamayo to create this tipi cover (above, center) as a symbol of opposition to the expanded oil pipeline. The horses pictured on the tipi evoke both the tribes and the cowboys, while the green and blue colors represent valued lands and waterways. Protesters, who helped paint the piece, marched the completed tipi cover from Lafayette Park, near the White House, to the National Museum of the American Indian. On their route, they crossed the National Mall, where the Resurrection City encampment was located nearly 50 years before. Upon arriving peacefully at the museum, protesters presented the tipi as a gift to President Barack Obama. In 2015 the president rejected the proposed pipeline on the basis that it would not serve the national interest.
- How has the National Mall served as a site for the public to express concerns about American society?
- How does America’s cultural diversity come forth in the Resurrection City mural?
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