City of Hope

Fifty years ago, a UMD architecture professor helped bring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last protest vision to life.
by Liam Farrell | Photo courtesy of Tunney Lee

The pilgrim protesters poured into Washington, D.C., from the farms of the South, the cities of the North, the mountains of Appalachia and the deserts of the West.

Carrying hammers, nails and pieces of plywood, America’s poor and forgotten met in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago this spring to build a new monument, albeit a temporary one.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Wiebenson
John Wiebenson, a founding faculty member of the UMD School of Architecture, played a key role in the design of Resurrection City.

Their shantytown, called Resurrection City, was meant to honor the final vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated just weeks earlier in Memphis, and to refocus the country’s conscience onto the plight of its most destitute. It was a last gamble to become a lighthouse for a nation adrift on a sea of violence, from riots in urban centers to bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia.

But before the ceremonial first stake was driven into the National Mall with cries of “Freedom!,” King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) turned to the University of Maryland for help. Needing everything from a proper location for the camp to structural drawings and a site plan, organizers tapped a young architect named John Wiebenson to lead a committee on the project.

Wiebenson was a founding faculty member of the nascent UMD School of Architecture. Opening in the fall of 1967, the school was infused with the tenor of the times, a sense of architecture as not just lines on a page or bricks and mortar, but a way of actually improving the lives of ordinary people. Now Wiebenson had an opportunity to put those ideals into practice.

DESPITE PROGRESS on desegregation and voting rights, King was increasingly disillusioned by early 1967.

Cities were still erupting into violence, black activists were questioning the efficacy of nonviolent resistance, and the Vietnam War was consuming the energy and resources once earmarked for a battle against debilitating poverty.

Allowing black people to sit at white lunch counters had been the easy part, King reasoned, as it required only a willingness to eliminate the worst behaviors of American society; true equality, he thought, was going to take something more.

Laden with notes, King rented a house in Jamaica without a telephone and outlined a more dramatic economic message, one advocating for not only wider employment but also a universal basic income.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” King wrote in what became his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” “A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.”

The Poor People’s Campaign began to take shape following the Long Hot Summer of 1967, when violence broke out in more than 150 cities, most notably Detroit and Newark, N.J. King was attracted to an idea proffered by Marian Wright, a NAACP lawyer in Mississippi, who advocated bringing poor people to Washington, D.C., and staging sit-ins at the Labor and Health, Education and Welfare departments.

“Very frankly, this is a search for an alternative to riots,” King told reporters on Dec. 1, 1967. “This is kind of a last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.”

Following King’s death four months later, the SCLC opted for a more dramatic approach: bringing the nation’s poor to Washington and housing them in a new shantytown that would be a visceral demonstration of America’s neglect.

It had some historical precedence. A mass of unemployed workers known as Coxey’s Army marched on Washington in 1894, and in 1932, the Bonus Army of 17,000 World War I veterans set up camp near the Anacostia River to spur long-awaited cash benefits for their service. And during the Great Depression, encampments called “Hoovervilles” built around the country became a symbol of need.

But the goal of this campaign, said Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the SCLC, was to transform the economic structure of the entire country. He pledged that the Poor People’s Campaign would “plague the pharaohs of this nation with plague after plague until they agree to give us meaningful jobs and a guaranteed annual income.”

Now they had to figure out how to do it.

WIEBENSON, who went by “Wieb,” was a 36-year-old Colorado-born architect who had studied at Harvard, served in the Army Corps of Engineers and worked in San Francisco before being recruited in 1967 as one of the first faculty members of UMD’s new School of Architecture.

John Hill, the founding dean, was inspired by the social justice struggles of the 1960s and sought to build a school with that ethos. Wiebenson, he says, was an early piece of that puzzle.

Sketches courtesy of Tunney Lee
Preliminary sketches by Wiebenson highlighted the design committee’s effort to create simple construction plans and layout for Resurrection City, so it could be built quickly and function efficiently.

“He had all the right gifts,” Hill says. “I was looking for people who had that kind of vision, over and above their talents and interests in design. We wanted to be instrumental in the cause of addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities. (Resurrection City) exemplified the goals and values we all shared.”

Wiebenson was a dynamic force in the World War II-era building that initially housed the architecture school. A skillful teacher, he threaded the needle between losing his students in abstract concepts and redoing their work for them.

“He’s one of those people that had a moral gravitas that drew us all in,” says Mark McInturff ’72, a member of the first graduating architecture class who later worked with Wiebenson. “No one who was there in those first classes was untouched by him.”

Wiebenson was brought into the Poor People’s Campaign by architect Tunney Lee, and the pair joined James Goodell of Urban America and Kenneth Jadin of Howard University in planning a city for thousands of protesters.

“John was clearly the leader of the group,” Lee says. “He was the most senior and most experienced.”

Faced with an uncertain number of “residents” who would need to build shelters quickly, the quartet first focused on identifying sites that would provide adequate size, facilities and symbolic resonance, and be close to government buildings, politicians and the media. The city’s central Mall was pinpointed as the best candidate among other possibilities such as the National Airport, D.C. Stadium and Gallaudet College.

“It was an exciting task,” Lee says. “Our part was small, but it was essential.”

With simple materials and abundant unskilled labor, the committee decided the town would be made up of prefabricated, triangular A-frame structures, with floor and roof panels on two-by-fours. Wiebenson sketched out a plan where a “Main Street” would run down the center like a spine and contain core services of meeting spaces, child care and dining, with neighborhoods branching off the sides like ribs.

“Some of the most elegant gestures in architecture are the simplest,” says Roger K. Lewis, a UMD architecture professor emeritus who was also among the founding faculty. “You couldn’t have done it any simpler or any better or any more economically.”

JUST TWO DAYS before the campaign began on May 12, 1968, the National Park Service issued a permit for 3,000 people to camp on 15 acres of West Potomac Park between the Reflecting Pool and Independence Avenue, from the Lincoln Memorial to 17th Street NW. With homes that could be put together in as little as 15 minutes, residents, activists and volunteers that included UMD architecture students set about building Resurrection City.

The encampment was filled with a sense of pride and ownership in the early days. Residents painted their structures with designs and slogans, from “Motown” to “I Have Lived in Many Houses, This Is My First Home.” Some made custom doors or windows; others added second stories and sundecks. They described Resurrection City to reporters as “the city where you don’t pay taxes, where there’s no police brutality and you don’t go to jail.”

Coretta Scott King walks through Resurrection City with Abernathy (in blue shirt). In the wake of her husband’s murder, King helped rally some of the biggest marches and protests of the Poor People’s Campaign.

The prospects for such an effort, however, had weakened significantly during the 1960s. The federal government, increasingly estranged from the civil rights movement as King publicly criticized the Vietnam War, had little interest in supporting thousands of protesters. Meanwhile, the FBI—long a SCLC foe—mobilized to disrupt the campaign, from spreading rumors that participants would lose their welfare checks to seeding the movement with informants.

The campaign itself stagnated early, with few successful marches or demonstrations, while internal SCLC battles for King’s mantle neutered the organization’s effectiveness. Though the expedition was cast as an alliance across races, most of the Mexican-American and Native American contingents stayed in other parts of D.C. and did little to coordinate with Resurrection City, while SCLC leaders attracted negative attention for lodging in a motel rather than the shantytown. Used to sympathetic media coverage, activists were instead met with harsh scrutiny from reporters harassed by the camp’s internal security; their articles regularly focused on rampant theft and crime rather than the campaign’s purpose.

“The poor in Resurrection City have come to Washington to show that the poor in America are sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless—and they are criticized daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless,” wrote Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker.

Mother Nature herself became an adversary, as it rained 11 of Resurrection City’s first 19 days, and 22 of its 43-day lifespan. The campsite became a quagmire, with muddy furrows and several inches of standing water overwhelming the wooden planks hastily put down as walkways alongside the huts.

Whatever momentum may have remained dissipated in early June with the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who many civil rights leaders had seen as the heir apparent for their cause. By the time the permit expired on June 24 and the camp was cleared, the ideals of economic justice had been eclipsed by tales of robbed tourists and skirmishes with police.

“The last days of Resurrection City were like being in the camp of a defeated army,” William Rutherford, executive director of the SCLC, said in the 1990 documentary “Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965–85.” “It was literally the end of a major battle, a battle of the poor, and they had lost.”

REFLECTING ON the experience the following year, Wiebenson was unconvinced that the failures of Resurrection City were unique in American life. His article for the November 1969 edition of the Journal of the American Institute of Planners contends that Resurrection City’s downfall was due to how quickly it mimicked the society around it, from a lack of participatory governance to insufficient responses to changing needs.

“Fences and fear, withdrawal and despair describe ghetto, suburb and downtown apartment building alike,” he wrote. “Resurrection City had, in a matter of weeks, become a demonstration model of the current American community.”

The weather proved to be one of the most difficult obstacles for Resurrection City. An unusual amount of rain turned the campsite into a muddy mess that sapped the spirits of protesters.

For the rest of his life, Wiebenson tried his best to correct that. He was a gadfly on the local architecture scene, leaving UMD in the early 1970s to start a private practice and becoming an early activist for preservation, leading the effort to save the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to commercial work, his firm regularly did pro bono projects for local charities.

Endlessly whimsical, Wiebenson drew comics featuring a horse (“Archihorse”) advocating for historic architecture, took his colleagues on meandering walks in the alleyways of D.C. and threw seeds into vacant lots.

Wiebenson proposed to his wife, Abigail, after seeing her just five times (“Not only was he a man of clear principle,” she says, “I knew I would never be bored.”) and turned their Dupont Circle rowhome into an urban treehouse of open air, natural light and se-

cret compartments. On Fridays, he would pick up comic books, steaks and baked potatoes for “Wild Man Night,” when the couple’s three sons would search the house for the hidden comics and then feast on dinner without using any utensils.

His death in September 2003, while spending a Sunday morning visiting a job site for Martha’s Table, a D.C. charity, was a tragic tribute to how he lived his life. While investigating a shaft that once had been used as a dumping place for oil, Wiebenson was overwhelmed by the poor ventilation and lack of oxygen, and died.

Lewis, who is also a longtime D.C. architecture columnist for The Washington Post, says Wiebenson was the “emblem of the architect who devotes his life and career to public service.”

After her husband’s death, Abigail says, homeless people occasionally stopped by the house to offer their condolences. Wiebenson had unfailingly talked to them every day on his way to work, she says, and gave them his spare change.

THE POOR PEOPLE'S CAMPAIGN is largely remembered as a hubristic overreach, the Waterloo of the civil rights movement. All of the conditions that had made the 1963 March on Washington a success—from the powerful presence of King to a society not yet consumed by Vietnam—had collapsed by the time a grieving band of activists undertook one of the most radical protests in American history.

The protest encampment known as Resurrection City, built on the National Mall in 1968, was a last-ditch effort to draw attention to the plight of the poor.[/caption]

“The Washington campaign was turned into almost a perfect failure: It was poorly timed, poorly organized and poorly led,” wrote historian Gerald McKnight. “By allowing itself to become bogged down in running a city, SCLC surrendered all its best protest weapons: imagination, spontaneity and élan.”

The complex legacy of Resurrection City lives on in more recent encamped protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock, which dramatized issues of income inequality and pollution. Wiebenson wryly noted in his Resurrection City article how an area of so much protest and controversy could be “returned to its parklike character, a place of grass and trees and flags, a place for monuments and memorials”—an observation no less relevant 42 years later for Occupy’s Zuccotti Park camp in New York City.

Wiebenson, however, never believed history could be erased. There’s a building on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest D.C., between Q and R streets, that houses a Loft women’s clothing store. When Wiebenson was working on it in the early 2000s for a commercial developer, he discovered that a former carriage house used to stand at that location, and decided to pay homage to a part of D.C.’s past.

In the alley behind the store, above jet-black doors on graffitied brick walls, stands today a charming motif of horse head sculptures. It’s his small way of reminding passersby that history—even if it’s hardly remembered today—is worth fighting for and building on, even in the smallest of ways. TERP


Leave a Reply

* indicates a required field