In 1968, Poor Americans Came to D.C. To Protest, Some By Mule : The Picture Show The photographer and folklorist documented a caravan of mule-driven wagons that left Mississippi to march on Washington 50 years ago to draw attention to poverty.
NPR logo In 1968, Poor Americans Came to D.C. To Protest, Some By Mule

In 1968, Poor Americans Came to D.C. To Protest, Some By Mule

Ben de la Cruz, Walter Ray Watson, Nicole Werbeck, Pearl Mak, Keith Jenkins/NPR YouTube

Fifty years ago, photographer and folklorist Roland Freeman hitched his hopes to a humble caravan of mule-driven wagons. The Mule Train left the small town of Marks, in the Mississippi Delta, for Washington, D.C. It was part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last major effort to mobilize impoverished Americans of different races and ethnic backgrounds.

"We're coming to Washington in a 'Poor People's Campaign,' " King said on March 31, 1968, only days before he was assassinated. One of the most symbolic groups making the journey to demonstrate at the National Mall was the Mule Train. When King visited Marks, he said he saw "hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear."

After trouble with equipment, planning and a downpour, the Mule Train left Marks, Miss., for Washington, D.C., on May 13, 1968. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

After trouble with equipment, planning and a downpour, the Mule Train left Marks, Miss., for Washington, D.C., on May 13, 1968.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Freeman offered to cover the trip for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group King led until his death. King's rousing "I Have a Dream" speech had inspired Freeman to join the civil rights movement as a photographer, and he started documenting African-American life the way he saw it.

As the Mule Train crossed the first state line into Alabama, participants celebrated having made it through Mississippi safely. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

As the Mule Train crossed the first state line into Alabama, participants celebrated having made it through Mississippi safely.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The ages of participants on the Mule Train ranged from 8 months old to 70 years old. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The ages of participants on the Mule Train ranged from 8 months old to 70 years old.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

During the trip, Freeman rode in different wagons, recording interviews and taking pictures. He never had formal training in photography. Instead, he studied Depression-era photographs in the basement of the Library of Congress, which was five blocks from his home.

He said he "looked up everything that Gordon Parks had ever done for Life." Parks, the first African-American to work as a staff photographer for Life magazine, later became a mentor.

Joan Cashin volunteered to help organize and prepare the Mule Train. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Joan Cashin volunteered to help organize and prepare the Mule Train.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train's participant roster kept changing throughout the journey, as new people would join and others dropped out. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train's participant roster kept changing throughout the journey, as new people would join and others dropped out.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Every photographic decision was by feel, by trial and error. Though Freeman said he wishes he had been a more experienced photographer at the time, his work has since been published widely and exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe and Africa. One of his books, The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered, came out in 1998 to commemorate the 30th anniversary.

The photographs reconciled the moments of the journey with histories and reflections from those who traveled in the caravan.

One story has always stuck with Freeman. Lydia McKinnon, a schoolteacher who volunteered in planning the Mule Train, was attacked.

"She had this big scar on her face, and I said, 'My God, Sister, what happened to you?' " Freeman recalled.

McKinnon explained later that sheriff's deputies and state troopers had beaten her and other demonstrators who refused to disperse after the arrest of Willie Bolden, a field office worker with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and wagon master for the Mule Train.

Lydia McKinnon, a schoolteacher, was attacked by police who used rifle butts to break up a protest over the arrest of Willie Bolden, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizer and the Mule Train wagon master. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Lydia McKinnon, a schoolteacher, was attacked by police who used rifle butts to break up a protest over the arrest of Willie Bolden, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizer and the Mule Train wagon master.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Well-wishers waving became a familiar sight along the journey. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Well-wishers waving became a familiar sight along the journey.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

"She felt the heels of their boots and the butts of their guns, as she laid on the ground," Freeman said. "And all I could think of was, if they would do that to her, what will they do to me?"

He took her portrait. Her young, pleasant face, framed by a gauzy scarf and permed hair, is marred by welts and bruises on her forehead and cheeks."My life flashed before me," McKinnon recalled in Freeman's book. "I had been in the segregated South all my life. White folks had the best of everything and what we blacks had was less than second best. So for that one crazy moment I stood up for what was right."

Local police officers and state troopers on patrol as participants prepare to leave on the caravan in Marks, Miss. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Local police officers and state troopers on patrol as participants prepare to leave on the caravan in Marks, Miss.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train ran a dangerous route. Many locals didn't want it coming through their towns. But looking back, Freeman admires the participants' courage for making the trip and the residents, many African-American themselves, who offered help along the way.

"They would say, 'You can stay on my land. You can put your mules over here. You can bed down here,' " he said. "Folks that didn't have hardly nothing. Sharing everything they had with you, I mean, 'Y'all come on in. I'm cooking some cornbread. I'm making a pot of beans.'"

The Mule Train's 500-mile journey was not easy, with threats of confrontations with hostile white locals and the police. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train's 500-mile journey was not easy, with threats of confrontations with hostile white locals and the police.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train organizers, including wagon master Willie Bolden (left) and civil rights leader Hosea Williams, dealt with many logistical issues, such as repairing wagons, planning meals and sheltering the animals and people participating. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The Mule Train organizers, including wagon master Willie Bolden (left) and civil rights leader Hosea Williams, dealt with many logistical issues, such as repairing wagons, planning meals and sheltering the animals and people participating.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

The memories of kindness made Freeman choke up.

"They gave you what they had, from the heart. They'd wish you well from the heart," he said. "That's when I really realized, there was no place else on Earth I'd rather be than right there, experiencing that."

In audio recordings he shared exclusively with NPR, organizers like Andrew Young are heard discussing caravan logistics, such as budgeting and scheduling rest stops.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy leads a "Poor People's Campaign" demonstration in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Girls play Ride-Sally-Ride in Duck Hill, Miss., on May 20. Courtesy of Roland Freeman hide caption

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Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Girls play Ride-Sally-Ride in Duck Hill, Miss., on May 20.

Courtesy of Roland Freeman

Freeman likened the Mule Train trip to an old Western movie — families made their way out to a new land in covered wagons, for the promise of new lives.

Looking back on the Mule Train, he believes the risks were worthwhile. "I'm glad it took place, and I'm glad I'm a part of it," he said. "The people who participated in it had a wonderful experience."

Correction June 16, 2018

A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Mule Train was headed to a demonstration at the National Cathedral. The protest took place on the National Mall.