Armed soldiers and military personnel were shouting orders but no one seem to be listening. They took no steps to stop the protestors/rioters. Their orders were to stand by, with weapons pointed downward. Even as the buildings continued to burn, in places a corridor of flames, they stood by. The heat was intense, only matched by the intensity of the expressions on the faces of the young, and old alike, who were carting off as much as they could carry. It was a free for all. Though there was no doubt in my mind that most of them were there because of their anger.
Dr. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated by the system in the form of James Earl Ray. You could expect no less than an outburst of hurt and pain. Oh the irony, when all the smoke cleared and the flames had been doused the guided as well as the misguided were left living among the ashes. The rage had given in to despair. Much of the Black low-income neighborhoods had been reduced to ruin.
Just a few months before his death, Dr. King and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held a meeting to plan and organize a Poor People’s Campaign for the coming spring in Washington, D.C. Organizers intended for the campaign to be a peaceful gathering of poor people from communities across the nation. They would march through the capital and visit various federal agencies in hopes of getting Congress to pass substantial anti-poverty legislation. They planned to stay until some action was taken.
The Poor People’s Campaign did not focus on just poor black people but addressed all poor people. As history records, before their plans could be realized, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Although feeling the sorrow of his death, a decision was made to carry on with the campaign. On May 12, 1968, the first wave of demonstrators arrived in Washington. One week later, Resurrection City was built on the Washington Mall. This was a ramshackle settlement of tents and shacks to house the protesters. And as I learned firsthand, to call it housing is being generous, at best.
This time I decide I want to take a close look at the other side of the protest, though still up close, but more personal. I had to focus my mind to take in what my eyes were seeing. Some wandered about with a sort of dazed look as just waking up to a bad dream, while others seemed to seek solace and refuge in their primitive accommodations. It was clear, to me, that most were taking on the symptoms of defeat. It would not take much—under these conditions—to become demoralized. People were hungry; there was not much food. From the outside looking in it appeared to me that they were relying on donations as their sole source of food. And when there was food, it seemed they just did not have an orderly way of providing it to those who needed it most—the young and the old.
Nature had not been kind to the protesters, either. The skies had opened up and down loaded an overabundance of rain. There was mud all over and if you did not have boots, and most did not, you had to secure your shoes some place and do your moving about in bare feet. It was a mess. The mud seemed knee-deep in places. This was the heart of the “Poor Peoples” encampment. I went as I would go to many other places. I was just curious, not much more than that. But what I saw caused me to return.
It was, to put it simply, a hopeless situation no matter how well intended. The King had died. There was a leadership vacuum; it could not be overcome. The best that I could do was pick several out of the multitude to take to the base for a hot meal and a break from the drudgery of living in such inhospitable conditions. And in two short weeks, I would be discharged from the Air Force and out in the “real world” myself. How was I to know though, that Chicago would be my next destination where destiny would wave its unseen hand, again. I did not know if I was creating my own destiny or it was being laid out for me. Either way, I would be there to see it all. It was not a plan, it just happened. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be next, just in time for my birthday.