Tuesday, April 1, 2008

RECOVERED HISTORY: UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING

CNN The Rev. Bernard LaFayette Jr. was resting at his Chicago, Illinois, home one autumn weekend in 1967 when the phone rang. The caller didn't identify himself, but LaFayette

immediately recognized the baritone voice. . . "Bernard, I need you," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said. "This may be my last campaign. We're going for broke.". . .

King called his crusade the Poor People's Campaign. He planned to march on Washington with a multiracial army of poor people who would build shantytowns at the Lincoln Memorial -- and paralyze the nation's capital if they had to. The campaign's goal: force the federal government to withdraw funding for the Vietnam War and commit instead to abolishing poverty. . .

The campaign was so risky that King told LaFayette, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader, during their phone call that he was going to appoint a new layer of executives to the civil rights group he co-founded.

"He was anticipating that we might be hit with some assassinations, so he wanted somebody left to assume responsibilities to keep it going," said LaFayette, who was appointed director of the Poor People's Campaign.


In fact, the shantytown was built on the Mall - it was called Resurrection City - designed by a team headed by John Wiebenson, architect and longtime cartoonist for this journal.

IRIS KRASNOW, MUSEUM & ARTS, 1991 - In 1967, when the Bay Area rocked with protests, Wiebenson was recruited by John Hill, the founding dean of the University of Maryland architecture school, to become one of its first faculty members. He got more action than he could have ever imagined. As his first major project in town, Wiebenson headed up a team of architects as the master designer and planner of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Resurrection City. It was the last stop of King's Poor People's Campaign, just weeks after his assassination.

King had a plan that he hoped would force the federal government to take notice of the nation's poverty. He brought poor people from across America to Washington to set up temporary housing on the Mall, smack in Congress' backyard. For Wiebenson, working with the carpenters, plumbers, and electricians on the construction of plywood tents for some 2,800 inhabitants was a logistical nightmare. But, as he says, "I loved the turmoil of putting a city on the Mall and doing it for a higher purpose." Former students at the University of Maryland say Wiebenson's role at Resurrection City and his commitment to social architecture greatly enlarged their view of the profession. They remember that this laid-back "even slightly ratty looking" character who drove around campus in an old Volkswagen and wore tiny John Lennon glasses taught them to be motivated by the integrity of a project, not the size of commissions. It was during the height of political ferment in Washington.

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