by Alex Hing. Editor’s Note: By 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had expanded his call for justice beyond civil rights to embrace a vision that called for progressive change in America. Not only did he oppose the Vietnam War, he also called for a massive campaign against poverty that affected poor whites and people of color. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on,” said Dr. King. “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by Dr. King, carried forward this mission and from May 21, 1968 until June 24, 1968, over 3,500 people occupied the National Mall in Washington, D.C. holding demonstrations to call for a major investment in communities to alleviate poverty, provide decent housing, and assure employment or a guaranteed income. For a deeper analysis of Dr. King’s thinking about human rights and economic reform, please read this article from The Nation magazine Dr. King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom
This article is based on Alex Hing’s interview conducted by John Alexander in October 2017 for an oral history of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign by the University of Virginia. Alex Hing revised the interview in May 2020 for East Wind Ezine.
Alex Hing at Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.D. June 1968.
At the time of my interview, a new Poor People’s Campaign was being launched by the Rev. William Barber II. The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which carried on the campaign after Dr. King’s assassination and culminated in Resurrection City, the six-week occupation of the National Mall in Washington, DC by a multi-ethnic coalition of poor people to demand full employment with a living wage or a guaranteed universal income as well as human rights, among other demands raised by different constituencies.
I was 22 and working as a dishwasher after dropping out of UC Berkeley because I felt that learning how to change society and make the world a better place could not be achieved at the academy. Growing up in a poor, working family in San Francisco Chinatown—my father was a stage magician and my mother was an elevator operator in a department store—I eventually got into trouble with the law. The streets of Chinatown were where my buddies and I got our education. Eventually, I turned my back on that life and was able to get into college even though I never actually graduated from high school.
At City College of San Francisco, I fell in with a bunch of progressive students who wanted to raise issues of the American War in Viet Nam and the Civil Rights Movement in public forums on campus, which was forbidden by the administration. So, we launched a Free Speech Movement and I ran for Associated Student president on a free speech platform. After two demonstrations where arrests were made, all our demands were met though I lost the election by a narrow margin.
I got to know members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense while registering voters by going door-to-door in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, a Black neighborhood. The Peace and Freedom Party was running Eldridge Cleaver, the Panther’s Minister of Information, for President of the United States. I was living in the Fillmore and we got enough signatures to be eligible for the California ballot.
A bus leaves from Newark, NJ in the caravan for the Poor People’s Campaign. Photo by the Smithsonian magazine.
As I was walking home from work one day, I saw a person handing out flyers recruiting people to get on a bus about a week later for the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). We got into a conversation and he asked me what I planned to do that summer. I planned to go to Chicago to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention and he told me I should consider joining the PPC. I knew about the Campaign led by the SCLC and although I had a lot of respect for Martin Luther King, I told him that I was more of a Malcom X guy and a supporter of the Black Panther Party. He said that the Panthers supported the Campaign and they would kick it off with a rally at the Oakland Auditorium. I signed up, with my girlfriend, Donna, and found a friend to take my place at work for an undetermined period.
The auditorium was packed, and an all-star lineup of Panther luminaries energized the audience: Stokely Carmichael, H Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver, who was out on bail, spoke. Cleaver talked about how the aims of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movement converged, but if the Poor People’s Campaign failed, it would be “the last chance for non-violence” and there would be a violent armed revolution to free Black people.
When the rally ended, we got on one of the two buses of the Northern California contingent. Buses filled with poor people from all over the United States, as well as a mule train from Mississippi were converging on Washington, DC. There were Chicanos, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, white coal miners and poor Blacks– three thousand of us. I met only two other Asian Americans, Emma Gee from Berkeley and Kenyon Chan who was living in DC, but we were there.
We left Oakland and proceeded on a meandering ten-day trip through the South stopping at Black churches two or even three times a day. Every church was packed as we rallied to raise funds for the campaign. There were sermons and speeches, some more political and radical than others, and wonderful gospel choirs inevitably ending with everybody singing “We Shall Overcome”. The most memorable sermon was at our first stop in Reno, Nevada. The preacher began low key and proceeded to ratchet up his volume and emotional level to where he was shaking and sweating, gasping for breath. He collapsed to the floor, choking and coughing in a spasmodic fit. His pulse was taken, emergency personnel arrived, and he was taken out of the auditorium in a stretcher as his assistant finished the program. And that was our first stop! In St. Louis, Missouri the community came out in force laying out a spread along the river that stretched for several blocks. Every example of Southern cuisine was offered, and we were the honored guests. People were placing their hopes on the Campaign so that MLK’s death would not have been in vain. More important than donations, we received the love of the people.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks out against poverty at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in March 1968. Photo from the Associated Press.
Right before we entered Missouri, Mark held a meeting with all of us. He said that we were entering the South and had to be very careful. Since we were from the Bay Area, we had no clue how dangerous it was. Our bus captains were put on alert full time and we were told not to venture out alone and not be seen with our white girlfriends. We were put into small groups and told to be accountable for each other at all times. A little later Mark asked me confidentially if I was packing. I told him I wasn’t, but I would get a piece as soon as I could. Cheap handguns were sold at checkout counters right next to candy bars at truck stop diners.
At Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held, several of the caravans converged and we participated in a huge rally. After the rally, we did not immediately get back on the bus. Instead, we waited at the stadium for several hours. Apparently, the KKK had planted bombs on some of the busses and the FBI had dogs sniff out all the busses. We noticed that our busses had large numbers painted on their roofs for air surveillance.
Inside the bus, we all grew close. One of Mark’s crew brought a guitar and we sang a lot. We shared wine and joints. We shared reading material. I was reading Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, others were reading Fidel Castro, Louis Farrakhan, Frantz Fanon, Malcom X, Eldridge Cleaver. We were from different nationalities with different experiences and discussed what we wanted from the PPC, what kind of society we wanted to build. Most of us were revolutionaries and had different ideas what that meant but we respected each other despite our differences. One person converted to the Nation of Islam on the bus while most of us had a more inclusive world view and were opposed to the Nation’s view of women. However, we all looked out for him making sure he did not inadvertently eat pork, like providing him with tooth powder because toothpaste was a pork byproduct and allowing him space to pray. We were able to look past our differences to see the humanity in each of us. The thing we all were aware of was that the odds of the PPC succeeding were slim and the Panthers were saying that this was the “last chance for non-violence”.
Upon our arrival, Mark and his crew scouted the terrain. He chose a spot away from the main area where A frame plywood tents were laid out on a grid under the glaring sun by the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument. We set up near the Potomac River under the shade of a grove of trees. The first thing we did was dig a firepit and then we laid out our structures in a circle facing the pit. Rather than erect A frames, we built shapes based on Buckminster Fuller’s. geodesic dome and set up our own security.
It did not take us long to understand how things were being run. The SCLC went through the motions of the Civil Rights Movement using direct action, but it was never interested in empowering people, nor serving them. It seemed that the main emphasis was on getting a lot of press coverage and raising money. There was no legislative or electoral strategy. If you came to Resurrection City with your own group, you could do your own demonstrations. If not, there was a daily demonstration schedule set by the SCLC and a schedule for meals under the mess tent. The SCLC employed the Detroit motorcycle gang, the Blackstone Rangers, to do security. These thugs were responsible for rapes and robberies inside RC. When they came to our encampment, we threw them out and told them to never come back.
The Northern California contingent had a reputation as the place to be. We continued developing our ideas of a new society around the fire. Instead of eating in the mess hall, we secured our own food. The San Francisco Diggers set up their famous oven that provided people with free multigrain bred during the Summer of Love. In 1968 the world was in uproar. It began with the Tet Offensive. In Mexico City students were on strike and Paris was in the throes of a general strike. A group of us got some paint and brushes from the commissary and went to the French Embassy and painted “Revolution Now!” and “Socialism!” on the Embassy wall. Security took us inside and held us for a couple of hours but let us go because the government had collapsed so there was no one to press charges.
One thing about life in Resurrection City was that it was not only hot and humid, but it rained every day for hours at a time creating a knee-deep swamp of mud that would unmoor some of the tents. We suspected the military of salting the clouds. The SCLC leadership had carpenters construct a fenced off “City Hall” in the center of RC where they held press conferences but where they never lived, staying in DC hotels instead. A group of us broke into it and liberated rolls of tar paper to waterproof our own structures. Who was going to stop us? The Blackstone Rangers? A real treat was the time we were taken into the home of a white family living in the DC area for showers and a good meal.
From time to time, we ventured into the main camp and met people living there. Most were couples or families who were dirt poor and had no hope except that the PPC would succeed. When I asked what they would do if it didn’t, most were at a loss. I asked them if they heard of the Black Panther Party and some of them had but most did not really know its program. We met Chicano leaders Corky Gonzales and Reies Tijerina, American Indians, Appalachian revolutionaries and people organizing in the inner cities. Tijerina invited us to visit him in Pecos. People were really upset when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in L.A. In our group we talked about his persecution of Jimmy Hoffa and how that smeared the whole labor movement. We also needed to know more about Palestine, the cause his assassin was advocating.
The Hunger Wall mural at Resurrection City.
After the fifth week, it became clear that a big rally would be held on the scale of the 1965 March on Washington, and that a deal was worked out to abandon the project after that. We made plans to leave, contacting car rental agencies who needed cars to be driven to California to balance their stock. We all left the day before the rally and the following day Resurrection City was mowed down flat by the Army and National Guard.
Supporters of the Poor People’s Campaign at the major rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by the Associated Press.
On our way back home, we dropped by the Alianza in Pacos, New Mexico to visit Tijerina. The year before, he led an armed take-over of the county courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to free members of the Alianza who were arrested demonstrating for possession of Spanish land grant deeds, which gave proof of collective ownership of the land to native people. There was a shootout and two federal agents were wounded. Tijerina was out on bail and helped organize the PPC. The Alianza was housed in a schoolhouse and we were greeted by poor country folk who all carried rifles. They offered us goat jerky and white bread with mayonnaise, and it was delicious.
When I got back home, I knew what I had to do. Every nationality and ethnicity in Resurrection City was represented by grassroots organizations except for Asian Americans. I would return to my roots in Chinatown and organize for revolution.
Author’s bio: Alex Hing is a full-time sous chef in a luxury New York City hotel and a trustee of Local 6 of UNITE HERE, New York City Hotel Trades Council and a founding member of APALA. He was part of the rank-and-file movement to bring democracy to San Francisco’s Local 2 and on the Negotiating Committee of the 1980 four-week citywide hotel strike. Hing is a longtime activist in student, civil rights, peace, API and environmental movements. He is a tai chi master and studied Okinawan karate for 15 years.
East Wind Ezine will also publish an article by Kenyon Chan, who volunteered for the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was a student at UCLA. For more information about Resurrection City including 12 oral histories and a video of the Feb. 9 2018 panel discussion with PPC veterans Laura Jones, Chuck Fager and Maria Varela, visit Poor People’s Campaign – Oral Histories and Reflections
Resurrection City, Washington, D.C. June 1968.