Mule Train: A Thirty-Year Perspective on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign of 1968

Southern Cultures, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Mule Train: A Thirty-Year Perspective on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign of 1968


INTRODUCTION

On 16 September 1997, civil rights activist Bertha Luster called me from Marks, Mississippi. I had first met Ms. Luster and her six children in 1968 on the Mule Train, part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SCLC) Poor People's Campaign. She had located my business card in an old box of civil rights memorabilia, and I was overjoyed to hear from her that people in Marks were planning a thirtieth anniversary of the Mule Train. Of the many caravans of poor people that came to Washington, D.C., from the four corners of the United States, this was probably the most dramatic--and the only one not made up of buses, cars, and vans.

When I hung up the telephone my mind drifted back to the 1960s and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. Inspired by his words, I had become a photographer, committed myself to the documentation of black culture, and, with no formal training, begun a full-time freelance career. When Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968, a shock wave went through America and a cloud of smoke hung over the nation's capitol as the city burned. By month's end, I had joined hundreds of other volunteers and found myself in Marks, assigned to the Mule Train. Feeling very much the novice, I was initially intimidated by my assigned task of photographing this undertaking; but when I saw the courage, strength, and wisdom of the people who had been on the front lines in the struggle for social justice, my fear was replaced with strength, and I knew there was nowhere else on earth that I wanted to be.

Now, thirty years later, I went to my files and rediscovered notes and images from the Mule Train. I was saddened by the evidence that I was really not a very good photographer then--I often didn't know exactly what I was doing, hanging in on raw guts and using a couple of old cameras with defective lenses. At the same time, I was pleased to see that as inexperienced as I had been, I had an al 91 most complete roster of the people on the Mule Train, along with interviews with several of them.

Looking at the photographs, I was suddenly overcome and broke down and cried. Once I collected myself, I realized that these materials could be a valuable part of the Mule Train anniversary celebration: they would show what it was actually like!

I decided that I would like to curate an exhibit, made up of my own work along with that of some of the other Mule Train photographers, and I sent a letter off to Ms. Luster volunteering to do so.(1) A few weeks later, I traveled to Marks to attend a thirtieth anniversary planning meeting.

THE BIRTH OF THE POOR PEOPLE'S CAMPAIGN

In September 1967, at SCLC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, at the request of a forceful young African American attorney named Marian Wright (later, Wright-Edelman) who was then director of the Mississippi office of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Dr. King met with Ms. Wright and four out-of-work African American men from the Mississippi Delta. These were proud, responsible family men whose unemployment was directly related to federal government subsidies claimed by large wealthy farmers in exchange for leaving their land fallow--for not growing crops. This farm policy was especially disastrous to the African American community in the South, and it contributed to mass migrations to cities in the North that were ill equipped to provide the jobs, training, or other services required. These four men represented the tip of an iceberg: in both urban and rural settings, across the South and indeed across the nation, millions of people were unemployed or underemployed due to the interplay of local conditions with larger institutional arrangements.

Ms. Wright urged Dr. King to adopt a strategy of sit-ins and fasts at the Washington, D.C., offices of the Secretary of Labor (Willard Wirtz). She also wanted him to encourage other religious and labor leaders to join these protests, which would continue--with the real possibilities of arrest and jail--until the problems of chronic unemployment and the related plight of the poor were addressed at the national level.

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