Resurrecting King and Resurrection City: Opposing Memories of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and a Forgotten Moment in His Legacy

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Axell Boomer

Every year, come the third Monday of January, Americans flip through news channels reflecting on the legacy of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Individuals active on social media—depending on the political affiliations of their peers—view a long series of posts listing the bastardization of King’s memory on both sides of the aisle. In discussing fissures in American society, Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture features a treatment of King’s legacy. Rodgers’ writes that “white conservative writers… absorb[ed] the figure who had been their most visible antagonist in the racial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr.”[1] Accordingly, conservatives renegotiated King as a colorblind activist, utilizing his legacy “against what they saw as the post-King course of the civil rights project.”[2] Rodgers’ marks this memory of King produced by conservatives as “a linguistic hijacking of the opposition’s rhetoric.”[3] This article will examine different efforts to memorialize King, first by the participants of Resurrection City—a protest event King helped conceptualize and organize which occurred months after his death—and secondly by contemporary politicians and the National Parks Service.


Resurrection City, a nonviolent encampment of the National Mall to protest economic injustice under the broader title of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), championed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was developed from a protest campaign originated by King. Terry Messman argues that King initially “aimed [the SCLC’s protest in Washington] at disrupting, and ultimately paralyzing, the… [U.S. government], unless and until it granted the Economic Bill of Rights.”[5] However, according to Messman, in the aftermath of King’s assassination, rioting “had taken the non-violent insurrection out of the realm of possibility,” nullifying King’s initial goals for the SCLC’s demonstration.[6] While Messman’s deterministic perspective on the conclusion of Resurrection City does not align with accounts from figures within the movement, it does signify that Resurrection City represented a transformative moment for the Civil Rights Movement in realizing King’s dream after his assassination.

A May 1, 1968 article from Soul Force, the official journal of the SCLC captures the mentality of the movement’s leaders. The article reports “the SCLC staff under the direction of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, were conscious of the admonitions to the disciples, friends and followers of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Chirst.”[7] Just as Jesus’s disciples in Galilee were called “to ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,’” the article explains, “so was the business of Martin Luther King Jr.’s disciples to go to Memphis and preach the gospel.”[8] In the wake of King’s assassination, SCLC leaders understood their mission within the context of Jesus’s crucifixion and assassination. Accordingly, these disciples afforded themselves the responsibility of spreading the Gospel. In time, they would deliver their martyr his own resurrection.


Soliciting financial support, the SCLC further declared their commitment to King’s memory following his murder. An advertisement seeking donations noted that money contributed to the SCLC “continue[d] the Nonviolent work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”[10] Moreover, the advertisement encouraged viewers to “Organize locally to go to Washington,” marking participation in Resurrection City alongside the goals of King.[11]

Three days before Resurrection City was terminated, Reverend Doctor Ralph Abernathy—the individual who led the SCLC and PPC in King’s absence—composed a statement reflecting on conditions in the encampment, as well as the goals of the demonstration. Abernathy signifies that King remained present in his mind, writing that he “came to Washington with a heavy heart… crushed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”[12] The leader added that he was “saddened by outbursts of minor violence in and around Resurrection City,” but hoped Americans would grant their attention to “a greater evil” in America—“the evil of widespread poverty.”[13]

Writing less than a month after the end of Resurrection City, Abernathy remarks that King believed “if the government failed to meet the main demands of the Poor People’s campaign this summer, it would be a tragic failure for our nation.”[14] Abernathy states that Resurrection City had been a successful demonstration, as it underscored “the deeper issue of the poverty and exploitation that breed violence.”[15] While this position contests Messman’s belief that the demonstration was a failure following the loss of King, Abernathy admits that the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign were not fully accomplished, as “the government… failed to move meaningfully against the problem of poverty.”[16] In an effort to navigate and realize King’s goals and legacy, Abernathy highlighted the success of Resurrection City for raising awareness of impoverished Americans.

During the encampment on the National Mall, the Poor People’s Theatre delivered their own interpretation of King’s legacy, with a production titled Beautiful Dreamer.[17] One review of a later performance of the play in Scranton, Pennsylvania—while moderately condescending—lists Beautiful Dreamer as “a tribute to the late Dr. Martin Luther King that stresses the dedication of the martyred [Black] leader to non-violence.”[18] However, the reviewer emphasizes that play “isn’t the sort of presentation which emphasizes any individual,” instead surfacing the movement itself and the figures within it.[19] In remembering King and his martyrdom, the Poor People’s Theatre continued to champion the movement itself, and the challenges and injustices they fought.

Returning to Rodgers’ scholarship, and the conservative’s vision of King, the Trump Administration’s 1776 Report offered its own interpretation of King’s legacy. The Report considers King’s “I Have a Dream” speech a culmination of “America’s nearly two-century effort to realize fully the principles of the Declaration.” However, the 1776 Report claims that this fulfillment of America’s values was quickly spoiled by “programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders,” echoing the conservatives Rodgers analyzes in Age of Fracture, by using King to condemn “affirmative action.”[20] While other addresses Trump made in office admit the persistence of racism and inhumanity that plague America, the pseudo-history produced by his administration asserts that King provided a solution and realization of America’s ideals, only to be thwarted by his later constituents.[21]

In a similar but optimistic vein, the National Park Service’s website for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial positions King as a figure who solved bigotry within America. Discussing King’s placement on the mall, the website describes King as standing between two other leaders in American history for civil rights—Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.[22] The National Park Service explains that the King monument embodies “the final push for full and equal rights.”[23] Interestingly, the website’s page on King concludes with a section titled “Drum Major Quote Controversy,” referring “to a paraphrased quote” originally featured on the monument that some interpreted as falsely presenting King as egotistical.[24] The paraphrased quote, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” aligns with the website’s characterization of King—the leading figure who actualized America’s values.

On July 13, 1968, Maurice A. Dawkins spoke at the Lambda Kappa Mu’s 31st Anniversary Conference. As the Assistant Director at the Office of Economic Opportunity for Civil Rights—the organization the PPC sought to influence—Dawkins offered his own interpretation on the consequences and accomplishments of Resurrection City. Dawkins remarked that the leaders within Resurrection City “are seeking changes that will bring about the dream so nobly espoused by the late Martin Luther King,” demonstrating the legacy that the PPC both inherited and embodied.[25] Provocatively, Dawkins positions the encampment’s conclusion as “[t]he ‘assassination’ of the physical Resurrection City,” but asserts that the protest “birth[ed]… a spiritual concept.”[26] Resurrection City, Dawkins argued, provided a “state of mind,” further demonstrating Abernathy’s attitude that the protest delivered a salient image of poverty in America that would move Americans and their government to consider the economic inequalities present in their nation.[27]

The National Park Service’s website for King’s monument omits mention of King’s dedication to economic equality, despite his role as a founding member of the Poor People’s Campaign, and his initial part in organizing a mass encampment which occurred on the same National Mall on which the monument stands. Similarly, the 1776 Report forgets King’s involvement in economic justice—perhaps this is because these actions do not fit within the conservative’s vision of King. How can the legacy of Resurrection City live on when the legacies of its forefathers are rewritten? How can King’s dream be realized when it is diluted?


Conservatives muse patronizingly at marble monuments dedicated to King’s service. Wasn’t he such a good servant? Such a good servant, in fact, that conservatives can still use him today, to serve their own historical narratives. Monuments can communicate many things, but they often celebrate victories. Victory over tyranny, oppression. These monuments tell us that these battles are long over, that they were undoubtedly won after one “final push.”[29] Remembering King inside Resurrection City, the Poor People’s Theatre delivered Beautiful Dreamer, celebrating King’s accomplishments alongside the Civil Rights movement, meanwhile displaying the injustices Black Americans continued to endure. In contrast, federal commemorations of King deliver a monolithic panacea to our nation’s racial issues. What would best exemplify our nation’s dedication to King’s legacy—and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement? A monument, or a bona fide commitment to an enduring equitable future?

[1] Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 128.

[2] Ibid., 129.

[3] Ibid., 130.

[4] Aerial photo of the Resurrection City encampment.

[5] Terry Messman, “The Poor People’s Campaign: Non-Violent Insurrection for Economic Justice,” Race, Poverty & the Environment 14, no. 1 (2007): 31.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Delta Ministry Series: Poor People’s Campaign—Promotional Materials, Etc. n.d. MS, Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, Archives Unbound (accessed March 30, 2024).

[8] Ibid.

[9] A figure of what appears to be a seated Jesus Christ, reportedly found within Resurrection City; Tina L. Ligon, “Resurrection City: The Continuation of King’s Dream,” June 26, 2018.

[10] Other Organization Series II: Southern Christian Leadership Conference. n.d. MS, Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, Archives Unbound (accessed March 27, 2024).

[11] Ibid.

[12] PPC: Demands On OEO, May 1, 1968. May 1, 1968. MS, War on Poverty, National Archives (United States), Archives Unbound (accessed March 27, 2024).

[13] Ibid., 17-18.

[14] PPC: Internal Memos And Notices. April 3, 1968 – May 22, 1968. MS, War on Poverty, National Archives (United States), Archives Unbound (accessed March 27, 2024).

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Delta Ministry Series: Memoranda—May-November 1968. May-November 1968. MS, Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, Archives Unbound (accessed March 27, 2024).

[18] Delta Ministry Series: Press Releases, Etc. n.d. MS, Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, Archives Unbound (accessed March 27, 2024).

[19] Ibid.

[20] The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, “The 1776 Report,” January 2021, 15.

[21]President Donald J. Trump Proclaims the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Brazil, accessed March 27, 2024.

[22]Building the Memorial,” National Park Service, accessed March 27, 2024.

[23] Ibid.

[24] ​​Ibid; Eyder Peralta, “A Paraphrased Quote Stirs Criticism of MLK Memorial,” NPR, August 31, 2011.

[25] Lambda Kappa Mu Sorority, Inc., July 10-13, 1968. July 10, 1968 – July 13, 1968. MS, War on Poverty, National Archives (United States), Archives Unbound (accessed March 30, 2024).

[26] Ibid., 15.

[27] Ibid.

[28] A tent featured within Resurrection City echoing the words of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

[29] “Building the Memorial.”