Capturing the Poor People's Campaign Documentary photographer Jill Freedman recounts her experience living among demonstrators in the mud and rain during the 1968 Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Capturing the Poor People's Campaign

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of The Poor People's Campaign. Fifty thousand people marched on the U.S. Capitol and camped there for six weeks to draw attention to the problems of the poor in the United States. The campaign was a dream of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, who'd been assassinated in April of 1968, so it was led by his successor Ralph David Abernathy. Jill Freedman took photographs of the campaign, and spoke with NPR producer Bilal Qureshi.

(Sounbite of interview)

Ms. JILL FREEDMAN (Photographer): The Poor People's Campaign was the last project that Martin Luther King was working on.

(Soundbite of speech)

Ms. CORETTA SCOTT KING (Civil Rights Activist): It was five years ago that my late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood in this very spot and told the nation about his dream.

Ms. FREEDMAN: And that was to go and show, right there next to the Reflecting Pool in Washington, between Abraham Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, that here's poor people, black, white, Indian, that you can't ignore us. You can't read your paper past us on the train, here we are, and he said, you know, join us. It was going to be six weeks living in the mud down there, and so I quit my job and joined The Poor People's Campaign.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. RALPH DAVID ABERNATHY (Civil Rights Activist): We will be here in Washington until the Congress of the United States and the leaders of the various departments of our government decide that they are going to do something about the plight of poor people in this country.

Ms. FREEDMAN: The first night my sleeping bag and boots were stolen, and it was really something. It rained every day, and it was just a mud, a sea of mud.

(Soundbite of news announcer)

Unidentified Man: Leaders were unable to police the camp, and thefts and assaults prompted many to leave. When violence erupted, police used teargas to restore order.

Ms. FREEDMAN: In the beginning I used to agonize over, are you an observer, or are you a participant, blah, blah, blah, you know, all these philosophical meanings which have absolutely nothing to do with a good picture. What really got me, I wrote in the book, I could see it, and with the poverty, and the whole thing, I mean, there were some real scuttles down there, and I suppose that's what I was photographing, was that determination, and it was that strength. I think it's really important that black, and white, and yellow, and red, see the caliber. Where they came from, why they have all these benefits, the strength of people that put their bodies on the line all the time. Whether - even if they just wanted to go to school, and that courage, and that it's important to stand up. Win or lose, it's important to be counted.

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