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Jill Freedman on the Poor People’s Campaign

Jill Freedman was a young advertising copywriter with a serious interest in photography when, in 1968, she quit her job to join the Poor Peoples Campaign. Before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had launched the Campaign to address American poverty and had asked poor people of all races and ethnicities, from all over the United States, to descend on Washington D.C. to demand that elected leaders support better jobs and opportunities. In April 1968, just weeks before the action was to begin, King was assassinated. Freedmans grief drove her to join and document the PPC in Washington, as historian John Edwin Mason notes in his essay in Resurrection City, 1968, the new book of Freedmans images from that period.

For seven weeks that spring, thousands of Americans lived in makeshift shacks on the Washington Mall in what became known as Resurrection City. Freedman was there the whole time, as participant and unofficial photographer. Mason points out that Freedmans photographs stand out from those of all the others who photographed the encampment and protests because she stayed for the duration and built relationships that allowed her to show regular folks and real life, not just the leaders or the expected pictures captured by news photographers who spent hours, not days and weeks, in Resurrection City.

Her images and texts are frank and unromantic—“There were people there whod give you the shirt off their backs, and others whod kill you for yours. And every type in between, she writesbut they show heroism and pride and defiance.

In another of the books essays, Aaron Bryant, photography curator of the National Museum of African American History, points out that Freedman privileges a Womanist point of view as a recurring theme throughout her series of images.” By documenting  womens leadership, she brings an important perspective to the history of the campaign. In one image, for instance, a woman burns a draft card, risking a hefty fine and imprisonment.

Freedman published her first book of this work in 1971. This new edition marks the 50th anniversary of the PPC. It finds American society cosmetically altered, but fundamentally similar. As Freedman notes in her foreword, Always have been poor people, still are, always will be. Because governments are run by ambitious men of no imagination. Whose priorities are so twisted that they burn food while people starve. And we let them. So that history doesnt change much but the names.

Conor Risch

Resurrection City, 1968
By Jill Freedman
Essays by John Edwin Mason, Aaron Bryant
176 pages, 141 b&w images

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