Before becoming an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ball State, Ken Heinen spent 35 years as a Washington, D.C. photojournalist. In 1968, he visually captured the story of the Poor People’s Campaign in a series of striking photographs that will be on display on Bracken Library’s second floor from February 1 to April 13, 2012.
After photographing the riots and violence that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Heinen, who was working as a photojournalist at the Washington Star, volunteered for a long-term assignment to cover the Poor People’s Campaign.
Organized in November 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The campaign’s purpose was to address issues of economic justice, including fair minimum wage and unemployment insurance, education for the poor, and housing. Ten thousand individuals planned to descend upon southern and northern states, as well as Washington, D.C., to spread their nonviolent message. Dr. King hoped this event would pressure the federal government into enacting anti-poverty legislation totaling $30 billion.
After Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968, SCLC decided to continue the campaign in King’s honor. On May 12, the first wave of demonstrators, spearheaded by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, began what would become weeks of protest in Washington, DC.
On May 13, a wagon train of mule-drawn carts picked up people from numerous states, beginning in Mississippi, to join the other protestors in Washington. According to Heinen, “The contrast between the wobbly mule-drawn wagons and the continual rushing traffic presented wonderfully graphic images.”
During that same time, a temporary settlement of shacks and tents, known as “Resurrection City,” was built on the National Mall in Washington by the protestors. By June, Resurrection City was forced to close and the anti-poverty legislation had not passed. According to Heinen, the government threw out the protesters and destroyed the shanties after giving them warning.
Heinen says, “I heard bullhorns blaring harsh words from the leadership, but I saw desperation mixed with determination in the eyes of the people riding in those wagons. I sensed the fear blended with the hope they were feeling. These were just plain folks who had swallowed their pride while gathering enough courage to show the nation their rage. They had arrived in Washington unsure of what to expect, but had come fully committed to their quest for economic justice.”
The powerful and striking photographs that Heinen took during this period illustrate and illuminate this important event in American history and the people who lived it.
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