Jill Freedman: Resurrection City, 1968

 

John Edwin Mason | JOHN EDWIN MASON: DOCUMENTARY, MOTORSPORTS, PHOTO HISTORY

I knew I had to shoot the Poor People’s Campaign when they murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. I had
to see what was happening, to record it and be a part of it, I felt so bad. Besides, it sounded too
good to miss….

— Jill Freedman, 1971

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The Poor People’s Campaign [PPC] was Martin Luther King’s last crusade. He summoned it into being in 1967, but didn’t live to see it — very briefly — capture the nation’s attention. Fifty years later, the campaign has been largely forgotten. When it’s remembered, it’s usually remembered as a failure. I’m not sure that’s right.

The problem may be that when people write and talk about the PPC, the have their sights fixed on the movement’s leaders, on Congress and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and on the press. Things look different when we consider the ordinary people who were the heart and soul of the movement. That’s where Jill Freedman was looking when she made the photographs about the PPC in the exhibition that opens on October 26th at the Steven Kasher Gallery, in New York, and her new book, Jill Freedman: Resurrection City, 1968.

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Jill Freedman: Poor Avenue, Resurrection City, Poor People’s Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968.

I’m happy to have had the chance to write an essay for the book. In it, I sing the praises of Freedman’s magnificent photos. But, just as importantly, I emphasis the importance of her images as historical documents, showing us the PPC’s rank and file and offering us a glimpse of their anger and solidarity, their dreams and their love. You can read some excerpts below.

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Seeing Resurrection City, Seeing the Poor:

They came to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968, by the thousand — young and old, black and white, traveling in buses and cars and mule trains. Some had left homes in the rural South. Others came from cities like Memphis, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Most were African Americans, but Latinos, whites, and members of half a dozen Native American nations were on hand as well. Virtually all of them were poor. Although Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference had summoned them to the nation’s capital, the movement belonged to them. This was the Poor People’s Campaign [PPC].

They were often called “the invisible poor.” But they came to Washington determined to be seen and heard by their government and by the nation as a whole.

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Jill Freedman: Hands like Shawls, Poor People’s Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968.

King believed that the nation was in crisis. He pointed to signs that couldn’t be missed — millions of citizens of the world’s richest nation living in grinding poverty; violent eruptions of rage and frustration in black inner cities; an immoral war in Southeast Asia that siphoned away resources from anti-poverty programs at home while spreading suffering and death abroad. During the December 1967 press conference at which the SCLC launched the PPC, King told reporters that America was in the grips of “a kind of social insanity.”

King was convinced that a renewed campaign of civil disobedience — in his words, “a new kind of Selma or Birmingham” — would recalibrate America’s moral compass and force the government to address the needs of the poor.

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Jill Freedman: Man in front of tapestry of JFK inside his
temporary home in Resurrection City, Poor
People’s Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968.

In New York City, Jill Freedman heard King’s call — and she answered. Like King, she sensed that America faced an existential crisis. In a recent interview, she told me that his assassination in April 1968, only weeks before the PPC was scheduled to arrive in Washington, left her devastated and searching for a way to respond. A chance encounter with a campaign organizer in Central Park seemed to supply the answer. Still in her twenties, she quit her job as a copywriter for an advertising agency and left for the nation’s capital with hundreds of others, in what she describes as a “long covered Greyhound wagon train.” Her camera was in her hand.

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Jill Freedman: Addla Thompson, Poor People’s Campaign,
Washington, D.C., 1968.

Avoiding most of the easy drama and all of the celebrities, she offers instead portraits of ordinary people — the women, men, and children who were the unheralded heroes of the movement. Freedman’s people are the ones with the muddiest shoes and wettest clothes, the people with the most to gain and most to lose. Her refusal to concentrate on protests and charismatic leaders challenges her viewers. She asks her audience to see the dignity and humanity amid the grime, the anger, and the rain.

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Jill Freedman: Marching through the streets, Poor People’s
Campaign, Washington D.C., 1968.

[Many have called the PPC a failure.] If we look at things through a poor person’s eyes, however, the view is decidedly different, and the question of the PPC’s failure or success becomes more complex. Take Lee Dora Collins, for instance.

Collins was a Mississippi sharecropper, who rode to Washington in one of the PPC’s mule trains. In 1998, she spoke about her experiences with Roland L. Freeman, who had photographed the campaign. Freeman asked her if she had been “disappointed in your trip to Washington?” Her answer is illuminating, and she will have the last word.

Yes and no. I really enjoyed the whole experience and I learned what we could do if we stuck together. I had never marched like that before. I saw my government turn us down. But the experience lifted my spirits and changed the way I think forever. I got back here and I didn’t say “yes sa boss” anymore.

Today, I have a comfortable home. Most of my children are doing pretty good.  …That’s all I was hoping for when I went to Washington, was to make things better for my family.

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Jill Freedman: Resurrection City, 1968, which opens at the Steven Kasher Gallery on October 26th, 2017, and her book, Resurrection City, 1968, showcase the photographs that she made as a participant in the PPC. Contact the Kasher Gallery for information about the book.

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Jill Freedman: Demonstrator playing the flute by the Reflecting
Pool, Poor People’s Campaign, Washington
D.C., 1968.

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Update, 31 October 2017: Time/Life has published a longer version of this blog post on its website. It’s got some great details about Freedman and the PPC and many more photos. Check it out, here.

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