As a freshman history major Robert Dorney had the experience of a lifetime when he went to work at the Washington Monument during the summer of 1968. Now, the only physical memory he has of that summer will be donated to the Martin Luther King museum in Atlanta to become part of their permanent archives.
Dorney was a student at Southern Florida University and as a cooperative education student he was sent to Washington, D.C. to work for the parks department at the Washington Monument. Daily he would help operate the elevator for the public and usher groups through the building.
Dorney arrived in March. In April Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but King’s final campaign carried on without him and arrived in Washington in May of 1968.
The Poor People’s Campaign was an effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. The idea for an Economic Bill of Rights came about following the civil rights movement, but it was not limited to one race. It was about helping all poor. Participants, who were gathered from across the nation, set up a city of roughly-built tents, called Resurrection City, on the Washington Mall. The group was permitted to stay for six weeks and a limit of 3,000 people was set.
King’s assassination led to riots, even in Washington, Dorney remembers, so police presence was heavy as Resurrection City was built. Police seemed worried that the participants might get out of control. Dorney was given a special assignment. Every three days he would remove the glass from an observation deck window at the Washington Monument for a camera crew to get an unobstructed view and film Resurrection City below.
The crew was dressed in civilian clothes and they claimed to be working on a project for Robert Culp, who was active in the civil rights movement, but Dorney said their equipment was clearly labeled “Property of the U.S. Army.”
“Everyone was involved in keeping an eye on the city,” Dorney said. “There was a lot of speculation and concern.”
The cameramen would meter the light and then take a Polaroid photo to further test the light before beginning filming. One day Dorney asked if he could keep the Polaroid photo, and it was given to him.
“Back then I didn’t have a camera,” he said. “I was a starving college student so that Polaroid is the only reminder I have of that time.”
Not much came of the Poor People’s Campaign. An economic bill of rights was never passed. Yet the police force was strong throughout, especially on the final day of the campaign. Dorney recalls having to take a college exam on the final day of the campaign for his correspondence course. The monument was closed to the public for the day, as all federal buildings were. He was sent up to the 490-foot level to take his test and recalls four FBI agents being stationed up there to keep watch as bus loads of police arrived to make sure Resurrection City was evicted.
“I was there the whole summer and it was a great learning experience,” Dorney said. “That final day looked like something out of a movie. It was an overcast day and you could see all these buses lined up… It was the biggest show of force I’ve ever witnessed, personally. After the riots they were going to make sure nothing got out of control.”
Nothing did get out of control but police did throw some tear gas into the camp just to be sure, according to reports.
Dorney remained at the Washington Monument until it was time to return to campus in Florida at the end of the summer.
Nowadays, Dorney is an Ahwatukee Foothills resident and 45 years later he’s still in possession of that old Polaroid photo of Resurrection City. The view captured in the photo is from a rare angle.
When a business partner mentioned planning a visit to The King Center in Atlanta Dorney decided to call their archivist and see if they might be interested in the photo, and they told him they would be thrilled. The photo will be donated to the center next week.
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