LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Fifty years ago today, a mule train of covered wagons left the small town of Marks, Miss., headed for the nation's capital. It was fulfilling the mission of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to draw attention to the impoverished conditions that many African-Americans lived in.
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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We're coming to Washington in a poor people's campaign.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As part of our series looking at how events from the 1968 shaped our country, NPR's Debbie Elliott has a look at Marks, Miss., then and now.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Martin Luther King Jr. picked Marks, Miss., as the starting point for the poor people's campaign because of what he had witnessed there.
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KING JR.: I tell you I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.
ELLIOTT: King was speaking at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. on March 31, 1968. He described being brought to tears by conditions in the Mississippi Delta, a region where, long after slavery, black sharecroppers remained on plantations working as tenant farmers.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: The bottom line was hunger, hunger, hunger. And you go up in the field, and you would just see the hungry children and the bloated bellies.
ELLIOTT: Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman was doing legal work in Mississippi in the 1960s. She recalls King touring a Head Start program in Marks that lost its funding.
EDELMAN: And he saw a teacher, you know, carve up an apple and give it to about eight kids - a slice each. And he was in tears. He had to leave the center.
ELLIOTT: Edelman brought members of Congress, including Sen. Robert Kennedy, to see the deprivation firsthand but got little traction on poverty programs. She says Kennedy encouraged her to get Martin Luther King to bring the poor to Washington. And King loved the idea. He organized a Poor People's Campaign, a multiracial coalition of poor people who would occupy the National Mall and demand economic justice. It would start from Marks, Miss., with a mule train and a nod to the plight of the black sharecropper.
MICHAEL JOSSEL: Now I'm going to take you to where the mule train was organized - OK?
ELLIOTT: The Rev. Michael Jossel was 14 years old in 1968. He drives through Marks, pointing out the grassy field where the wagon train assembled.
JOSSEL: Mule train.
ELLIOTT: He says after King was assassinated, preparations continued. High school students would help in the afternoons and then march into town every evening.
JOSSEL: To just bring attention that we were tired of living the way we were living.
ELLIOTT: Jossel says when students marched to the jail to protest the arrest of an organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they were met by armed troopers.
JOSSEL: And they parked on this side of the street with their helmets and guns and lined up in a single-file and started marching across the street to where we were. They took the butts of their guns and start swinging at heads and everything. And we scattered like bees.
ELLIOTT: Samuel McCray was there, too.
SAMUEL MCCRAY: You went at your own risk.
ELLIOTT: He says teens like him were more willing to participate than older residents who stood to lose their jobs and homes.
MCCRAY: A lot of the parents didn't know there was a better way. You know, yeah, you saw Dr. King and he fighting for all, but then they kill him. So, if they going to kill him, then what about you?
ELLIOTT: McCray's grandmother let him help locally but not ride the mule train to Washington. But others filled about 15 covered wagons and set out across the South. Bertha Burres and her six kids were among them. She talked to SCLC photographer Roland Freeman on the trip. He shared those recordings exclusively with NPR.
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BERTHA BURRES: We have a great purpose, and this is what I am backing all the way.
ROLAND FREEMAN: You say you know why we're going and we have a great purpose. Would you mind explaining to me, in your own words, what you think this great purpose is?
BURRES: We are in great need of jobs. I need a job that will secure us and help us to bring up our family decently - you know.
ELLIOTT: Burres served as the record keeper for the SCLC. She suffers from dementia now. But her cousin, Betty Crawford, is organizing those papers to preserve the history of the mule train. Crawford recently moved back to Marks, living in a house that's very different from her days growing up in a family of 16 battling worm outbreaks and living in sparse housing.
BETTY CRAWFORD: I was 16 years old before we got inside plumbing, before we had a house with running water.
ELLIOTT: The mule train brought new possibilities, but Marks, Miss. - population 1,500 - still struggles with poverty today. Jim Crow was legally dismantled. And African-Americans have political clout in the Delta. But economic power is more elusive. Farm jobs are mostly mechanized now. And smaller businesses have left downtown. Two major employers here, a cotton compacting plant and a seed oil press, have shut down. More than 34 percent of Quitman County residents live below the federal poverty line.
CRAWFORD: Coming in.
ELLIOTT: Betty Crawford checks on an elderly neighbor around the corner.
JULIA MAYWEATHER: Watch out, Betty.
ELLIOTT: Julia Mayweather warns her to avoid rotted-out floorboards.
MAYWEATHER: I usually kind of get over here. You step over to this side.
ELLIOTT: A retired school cafeteria worker, Mayweather hasn't been able to keep up with repairs since her husband died. She says Martin Luther King would be disheartened to see Marks today.
MAYWEATHER: Because, I tell you what, we don't even have a grocery store in Marks. And I'll tell you another thing - the doctors, too. There's no doctors here. They used to have a hospital. It's gone.
ELLIOTT: The hospital and old SuperValu sit empty on the main highway.
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ELLIOTT: This month, Amtrak added a stop in downtown Marks. It's part of a local strategy to develop the region as a tourist destination. Quitman County Administrator Velma Benson-Wilson says the history of the poor people's campaign has been buried here for too long.
VELMA BENSON-WILSON: How can we use it to help Quitman County maybe dig itself out of some of the poverty? There has to be a way.
ELLIOTT: She says what started here 50 years ago helped people around the country when Congress passed nutrition and housing programs.
BENSON-WILSON: They were all rooted in what started here in Marks in 1968. And somehow we have not been able to tell that story.
ELLIOTT: The mule train made it to Atlanta to board a rail train bound for Alexandria, Va. On June 19, the caravan crossed the Potomac and joined thousands of people from around the country to live in a shantytown known as Resurrection City on the National Mall. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Marks, Miss.
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