The mule train of 1968

By JAY WIENER,

The 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination motivates mention of the Mule Train, from Marks, Mississippi to Washington, D.C., which followed. Its history is instructive.

I am interested in Marks — close second-cousins of mine are descended from Jacob Marks, older brother of Leopold Marks, the first State Legislator from Quitman County (circa 1877) for whom Marks is named — but the Mule Train is noteworthy notwithstanding. (Researching this piece, I rediscovered a Roland Freeman photograph of the Mule Train, donated by my mother to the Mississippi Museum of Art). Dr. King was en route to Marks when he was murdered. He stopped in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The visit to Marks would have been his third. He preached at the funeral of 66-year-old Armstead Phipps, who suffered a fatal heart attack, during the renewed James Meredith March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, in mid-1966. During that visit, Dr. King was moved to tears by the sight of a school lunch consisting exclusively of four apples that the teacher brought to school and divided among her students. During the second visit, in March 1968, an impoverished black boy remarked that he would have a future if he was white.

“A Poor People’s Campaign, a massive march similar to that in 1963, was needed to pressure the President and Congress to eradicate hunger and destitution in America.”

 

The goals were:

 

– A meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen;

– A secure and adequate income for all who could not find jobs or for whom employment was inappropriate;

– Access to land as a means to income and livelihood;

– Access to capital as a means of full participation in the economic life of America;

– Recognition by law of the right of people affected by government programs to play a truly significant role in determining how they were designed and carried out.

 

Six central priorities were:

 

– Citizen participation in antipoverty programs;

– Abolition of freedom of choice and dual school systems;

– Passage of the Fair Housing Act;

– Creation of a federal jobs corps;

– Settlement of the question of who owned Mexican-American lands;

– Enactment of minimum federal welfare standards.

 

Schools in Marks were inadequate: Training materials were nonexistent. Books were outdated. The “library” was laughable. Students were underfed and underprepared to be other than traditional laborers.

Times had changed sufficiently that local attorney Ney Gore, first director of the Sovereignty Commission, was supportive.

Mules came from Kentucky. Finding wagons was more challenging. The Mule Train travelled through Grenada and Birmingham to Atlanta where the mules, wagons and passengers were loaded onto trains to Washington and the journey’s conclusion. It covered 25-30 miles a day during the 500 miles between Marks and Atlanta. State Troopers escorted the 15 wagons through Mississippi and Alabama.

Bus caravans went from Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Memphis, and other places. The focus was not upon race but hunger and joblessness: food, jobs, and justice. “Fifty percent of the families in the south, black and white, were eking out a living with incomes below the established poverty level.” In 1967, the Federal Government “appropriated... $157 billion for various and sundry programs in the nation’s capital, the 50 states, the territories and foreign aid. Of that amount, $19 billion [was] designated for social programs like health, education, and welfare. In contrast, $109 billion was earmarked for the defense budget. Thus, America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was spending a full 70 percent of its budget on warfare and only 12 percent on its own needy.”

Fifth-nine counties in 11 states had no mechanism for distributing free commodities such as surplus cheese, butter, beans, and powdered milk. Simultaneously 340 farmers in Sunflower County, alone, received $6.8 million not to farm. None of that amount assisted displaced farmworkers.

Changes accompanied the Poor People’s Campaign. May 1968 saw an end to dual public school systems and the refusal of federal funds for free meals. Free school lunches and breakfasts, food stamps, and food commodities followed.

The year 1968 marked the highpoint of government intervention. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s murders during springtime and the Democrats’ defeat in the November presidential election left the philosophy without a champion. Movements demand charismatic leadership.

This OpEd piece could not have been written without “Marks, Martin and the Mule Train” by Jackson State University Professor Hilliard Lackey, a Marks native. He deserves the last word:

“In 1968, Quitman County ranked as the poorest county in Mississippi and the poorest county in the United States. Some 45 years later in 2013, Quitman County has the fifth lowest per capita income in Mississippi and the 51st lowest in the United States. Much of that improvement can be traced to the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train of 1968.”

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.