The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington was still in the planning stages when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. King had envisioned a mass rally of economically disadvantaged people which would shut down Washington, DC until legislators promised solutions to poverty and unemployment. He had all the poor in mind, not just black folks. He also spoke out about against the war in Vietnam.
In May, the March on Washington began. I knew I had to shoot it. I had to see what was happening, to record it and be part of it, I felt so bad. Besides, it sounded too good to miss. So I went and had one of the times of my life, and this is my trip.
Of course, it was old stuff from the start. Another nonviolent demonstration. Another March on Washington. Another army camping, calling on a deaf government. Even poverty is ancient history. Always have been poor people, still are, always will be. Because governments are run by ambitious men of no imagination, whose priorities are so twisted that they burn food while people starve. And we let them. So that history doesn’t change much but the names. Nothing protects the innocent. And no news is new.
We built Resurrection City out of plywood shacks on the Washington Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Talk about poor. Some of those people raised their whole standard of living just by moving in. Food every day, electric lights, enough beds for everyone. This mudhole was a paradise, that’s how poor some of those people were. And it showed, in the wizened children and winos and junkies and schizos, casualties of the war for survival, their eyes broken as their shoes. And in the others, wearing their faces like medals. Tough, proud, dignified faces.
Like in every city, some people worked and some didn’t. In our town, work meant demonstrating. Six weeks of going out and mingling with the plastic flowers and exhaust pipes and dead monuments of our nation. Showing the tourists more of America than they’d wanted to see, talking Man power, Woman power, Chicano power, Indian power, Black power, White power, People power, Soul power. Claiming all our human rights to dignity.
At 2:30 in the morning of the last day, the authorities gassed us in our beds. It went on for over an hour, CS gas which especially affected the old folks and the children. When it was all over, people slowly gathered together, distilling the fury of this night into a pure re-affirmation of themselves, their voices rising in a litany of human dignity. “I may be poor, but I am Somebody. Soul Power.” Singing movement songs. And suddenly I understood that they had to attack us because they were afraid. Afraid of the strength that had withstood the endless rain; the stinking mud; the mosquitoes; the cold; the wet; the bad food; the respiratory epidemic, born of the elements, nursed by the gas.
They were afraid, victims of that basic primordial fear that defines humanity in terms of them and us. So they came and gassed us for an hour, and what did they get for their trouble? Some songs. Some crummy songs. How do you fight a song? Can you blow it up with bombs, crush it with tanks, drown it with water, shoot it with bullets, lynch it with ropes, burn it with fire, repress it with laws, scare it with goons?
They shot enough to knock out half of Washington and a little bit of Virginia, too. But how do you gas a song? You can kill a man, but how do you kill his dream? When the dreamers, hoarse and red-eyed, righteous and inevitable, sing louder than before. And breathing this music, overcome by love, I got a funny feeling that this was the last time. The last time for something we have known and grown comfortable with. But only the start of something we have yet to feel, much less understand.