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The summer of 1968 was a rainy one in D.C. The city and country were trying to move forward in the aftermath of widespread riots; cleaning up and figuring out what the future of the Civil Rights struggle would look like without Martin Luther King, Jr. at its helm. Before his death, he had helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign—and in spite of his passing, or perhaps bolstered by it, the first protesters arrived 50 years ago, on May 12, to begin a six-week occupation on the National Mall.
Undeterred by the rain, thousands of people formed a self-reliant community they called Resurrection City, complete with a city hall, mayor, and school. There were tents to sleep, but also tents for healthcare, learning, and art. The “Many Races Soul Center,” also known as the “Soul Tent,” became the destination where residents turned their struggles into song.
As part of its year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of 1968, the D.C. Public Library is recreating the Soul Tent. The temporary tent structure will be unveiled at the Funk Parade this weekend before being installed at four libraries throughout the summer.
“The Soul Tent was the site where all were invited to come, and they treated it as a space for cultural exchange. They taught each other traditional music and compared experiences of poverty,” says Nicholas Petr, a curatorial consultant for the D.C. Public Library who helped organize the project. “It was a really amazing setting, and a history that is often forgotten.”
The project will offer visitors a history lesson through archival photos of Resurrection City from DCPL’s Special Collections and The Library of Congress American Folklife Center, and original recordings from the Soul Tent from the collection of Bruce Jackson.
Librarian Maggie Gilmore listened to the recordings of songs and speeches to find the most compelling moments of audio, like the open mic sessions run by singer-songwriters and civil rights activists Jimmy Collier and Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick. The sessions featured some well-known folk musicians, including Pete Seeger, The Georgia Sea Island Singers, and Elizabeth Cotten, but unknown musicians who stepped up to the mic, too.
“There were people coming up to the stage to perform, to speak, to read a poem,” she says. “The unknown guy from Alabama playing the harmonica, someone stepping up and reading a poem … and in the middle [Collier and Kirkpatrick] are great orators. They’re also hilarious; they’re comedians, so they’re fun to listen to.”
The moment of audio that stands out for her is when Collier calls out the audience and encourages them to remember how much courage it takes to get onstage. Organizers hope to encourage the same artistic support and collaboration through programming at the Soul Tent.
At the Funk Parade, spoken word artists will perform poems inspired by lyrics from song books written at Resurrection City. When the tent moves to libraries throughout the city, local artists will curate original, on-site musical programs.
“Why not think about it not just as history, but in the context of today,” Petr says. “When you celebrate the history of something, are you celebrating 1968 or are you celebrating 2018? We wanted to do both.”
The DCPL artist-in-residence, Anu Yadav, plans to write short plays inspired by the programs.
“The Soul Tent is a way to have conversations about the pressing social issues of our time. It’s a way to think about and reflect on how we actually want to move forward in our society,” Yadav says. “The themes of the original Poor People’s Campaign are still alive.”
Indeed, activists nationwide have re-launched the Poor People’s Campaign. Protests will take place across the country, including in D.C., on May 14.
The Soul Tent is part of D.C. Public Library’s year-long remembrance of 1968. The Soul Tent will launch at the Funk Parade on May 12 at 1000 V St. NW. It will be at Mt. Pleasant Library May 14-20, Anacostia Library June 4-9, Woodridge Library June 10-17, and Benning Library June 18-23.