Washington, D.C. is no stranger to protests. Most are one-day affairs, consisting of a march or rally with some speakers and a musical guest or two. A handful, though, have been more long term, with protestors spending days or weeks camped out in our nation’s capital to fight for their cause. Two of the most significant of these encampments, the Bonus Army and the Poor People’s Campaign, are covered in the audiovisual holdings of the Special Media Division at the National Archives.
The Bonus Army
In the summer of 1932, World War I veterans, like the rest of the citizenry, were suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression. They descended on Washington, D.C. with a simple demand: an early release of bonus money their government had promised to disburse in 1945. The protestors began trekking to Washington at the end of May; soon there were tens of thousands of them camped by the Anacostia River in southeast D.C. The protestors dubbed themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Forces,” a play on the American Expeditionary Forces of the First World War.
Within weeks, Congress brought a bill forward to issue the bonuses. On June 15th, the House of Representatives passed the bill; two days later the Senate voted it down. Most of the protestors left town after the defeat, but thousands remained. By the end of July, President Hoover and other government officials started to worry. On July 28th, D.C. police attempted to remove squatting protestors from a vacant building. Violence ensued, with two veterans shot and killed by police. The United States Army, led by General Douglas McArthur, advanced on the shantytown, launching tear gas attacks and forcing any remaining protestors out of the camp. Soldiers burned what remained of the settlement to ensure that the Bonus Army marchers could not return.
As one might expect, the attack on World War I veterans did not play well with the public. 1932 was an election year and political consequences ensued. With a new Congress and president in place, fresh legislation sought to alleviate the suffering of veterans. The new Civilian Conservation Corps, intended to provide employment to young men across the nation, set aside 25,000 positions for war veterans. By 1936, with a veto-proof majority, Congress passed a bill to issue the bonuses.
Newsreel footage compiled by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. (111-H-1225)
The Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, he left behind more than a mourning nation and an extraordinary legacy. King died just weeks before the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, a far-reaching project to mobilize poor people from around the country, bringing them to the nation’s capital to advocate for legislation and policy changes to help those afflicted by poverty. King was one of the primary architects of the campaign and spent the last months of his life building support. The Poor People’s Campaign intentionally echoed the sustained-protest model of the Bonus Army marchers, with a plan to build a tent city on the National Mall to serve as a home base for activists to organize, lobby government officials, and launch large-scale demonstrations. The Poor People’s Campaign sought employment, housing, and nutrition programs to assuage poverty in America.
After King’s murder, there was some debate about whether the Poor People’s Campaign should continue, but organizers decided to press on, with Reverend Ralph Abernathy taking over as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In early May, caravans formed around the country, stopping along the way to rally and pick up more protestors. In total, eight caravans converged on Washington, D.C., by the end of the month, coming from all over the South, and as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles. The thousands of protestors purposefully represented all of the groups living in poverty in America, including African-Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and rural whites.
Footage from the United States Information Agency shows activists walking down dusty roads to talk about the campaign with people living in rural areas. We also see them marching in Marks, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee. Hundreds of the marchers gathered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination the previous month.
Stills from footage of the Poor People’s Campaign. (306.6004)
When the protestors arrived in D.C., many moved into a tent city of plywood A-frame structures built on the south side of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. The camp, known as Resurrection City, was deluged with rain for more than half of the days that protestors lived there. A National Archives colleague who visited the site said that it was muddy, but that “it was peaceful and there was a real feeling that everyone was there to make a change.” Activist groups from all around the country formed connections that would last for decades. Legislators and government officials held meetings with the protestors and visited Resurrection City to speak with the group.
Unfortunately, at the end, the Poor People’s Campaign had more in common with the Bonus Army encampment than its organizers had intended. When the group’s permit to camp on federal property expired, police were sent in to clear remaining protestors from the site. Activists were tear-gassed and many were arrested. In the end, none of the specific legislation proposed by the Poor People’s Campaign was taken up by Congress, but the heightened awareness of poverty achieved by the effort is credited with increased funding for Head Start, school nutrition, and food assistance programs.
For more on the Poor People’s Campaign, see these excellent articles from Smithsonian Magazine and WETA, as well as a series of blog posts on Resurrection City and Mobilizing Communities at the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.