Mule Train commemoration a reminder of lingering poverty
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Civil rights activists are gathering this weekend to remember an effort 50 years ago that brought attention to entrenched poverty in the Mississippi Delta.
The mule train was part of the Poor People’s Campaign envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King - an effort to unite people across racial lines to try to improve conditions for people struggling to make ends meet.
Before he was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, King had witnessed hunger in the rural town of Marks, Mississippi, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Memphis.
On May 13, 1968, more than 100 people departed Marks in covered wagons pulled by mules. Black-and-white photos taken then by James Goldman show covered wagons with slogans painted on their canvas tops: “Feed the Poor,” ″Injustice is a Sin in the Sight of God,” and “Which is Better? Send Man to Moon or Feed Him on Earth.”
The caravan spent a month traveling to Atlanta. Then the whole caravan - people, wagons and mules - boarded trains that took them to a suburb of Washington, D.C.
The mule train crossed the Potomac River and arrived in the nation’s capital June 19, and participants joined thousands of others in a rally for jobs, peace and freedom. The goal was to persuade the federal government to enact an Economic Bill of Rights that included creating a million public service jobs and allowing farm workers to unionize. The package ultimately did not come to fruition. But the marchers, along with people camped in tents in Washington in a community called Resurrection City, drew attention to poverty in Mississippi and other places.
Quitman County, the home of Marks, remains one of the poorest places in one of the poorest states in the nation. Census Bureau figures show the poverty rate in the United States is 12.7 percent. The rate is 20.8 percent in Mississippi and 34.3 percent in Quitman County.
In 1967, a young Mississippi NAACP lawyer named Marian Wright accompanied U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy to several communities in the Mississippi Delta to see people who had lived in poverty for generations. She later married a Kennedy aide, Peter Edelman, and she founded the Children’s Defense Fund.
Marian Wright Edelman returned to the Mississippi Delta in 2017, and her itinerary included a stop in Marks, where local residents talked about the difficulty of living in a town that lacked a full-service grocery store, which meant they had to drive at least 15 miles to buy fresh produce.
“We have 14 and a half million poor children in the United States of America, about half of them living in extreme poverty in the richest, most powerful economy in the world,” Wright Edelman said in Marks in July 2017. “That’s not right.”
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