A Story of the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train
About the Poor People’s Campaign
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference initiated the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 to draw awareness to the impoverished conditions in which many Americans lived and to lobby the Federal Government for greater access to jobs and living wages. The demonstration consisted of an elaborately planned journey that began in Marks, MS – chosen for its status as the poorest town in the poorest county of the poorest state in the nation – and culminated in Washington, D.C. at a temporary campsite created on the National Mall called “Resurrection City.”
One group of demonstrators departed from Marks by bus to travel to the Capitol. A second wave of demonstrators left Marks one week later, on May 13th, 1968, and traveled to D.C. in a covered wagon caravan powered by teams of mules. For more than four weeks fifteen mule-drawn wagons ambled through the South, carrying more than one hundred participants from town to town and broadcasting the S.C.L.C. Campaign message through slogans painted on the sides of the covered wagons.
On Saturday, June 15th, 1968, the “Mule Train” entered Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., where they reunited with members of the “Freedom Train” (the 350 who had ridden the buses from Marks, MS) and about two thousand additional demonstrators.
While the Mule Train has been credited for leading to the establishment of the federally-funded free and reduced lunch program for students in public education, historians are conflicted over the effectiveness of the Poor People’s Campaign. In many ways the slow, mule driven journey from Marks, MS to Washington, D.C. is as anomalous to Civil Rights memory as the sight of the covered wagons was in the highways, communities, and urban spaces of the South.
Sources consulted for this information:
Hilliard Lawrence Lackey, Marks, Martin, and the Mule Train: Marks, Mississippi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Origin of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train. Xlibris Corporation LLC, 2014.
Roland L. Freeman, The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered. Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
The above photograph is by Warren Leffler, courtesy of the Library of Congress’s American Memory site.
Oral History of Eddie Lee Webster, Jr, Interview 1: March 19, 2016
Interviewee: Eddie Lee Webster, Jr.
Interviewer: Chet Bush
Location: Marks, Mississippi
Length: approximately 1 hour and 29 minutes
Eddie Lee Webster, Jr. is a resident of Marks, MS in Quitman County who participated in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
As a youth, Webster worked closely with local efforts to advocate for the poor by engaging with the local Youth Commission Office sponsored by the SCLC. He speaks of Rev. Ralph Abernathy as his inspiration to join the cause. At sixteen years of age he was named the Vice President of the Youth Commission and engaged in Quitman County public demonstrations to bring awareness to poverty conditions in the area. He shares about his responsibility to gather local support for the courthouse marches from among students at the High School. Webster describes the marches through town that culminated on the Quitman County Courthouse lawn.
Webster joined the ranks of the Mule Train caravan that journeyed from Marks, MS to Washington, D.C. during May and June of 1968. Webster described Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement in the project but his memory confuses some chronology of Dr. King’s engagement.
He spoke of his personal free-spirited motivations to get away from home, while recognizing the importance of the highly-coordinated efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to advocate for the poor. Webster gives first-hand account of his experiences as a driver for one of the mule-drawn wagons that trekked through the South. He enjoyed the receptions at each stop along the Mule Train journey, and particularly benefited from the relationships he made with the variety of people who supported the demonstration.
He recounts the struggles and the joys that the team encountered on the journey, telling stories about significant stops along the way that include Duck Hill, MS where his wagon lost a wheel, Birmingham, AL where they visited Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the troubles they encountered with the law at the Alabama / Georgia state line.
He discusses his experience at Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. where the journey culminated with a rousing assembly, but was quickly and heavy-handedly dispersed by law enforcement.
Webster reflects on his upbringing in the cotton fields and reminisces about his childhood. He gives his impressions on poverty and shares personal sentiments about current society. He discusses racial tension and laments that many changes we see today are negative rather than positive. Webster emphasizes how one can will oneself out of poverty, but later stresses the importance of a good education for overcoming poverty.
The interview returns to the marches on the Quitman County Courthouse lawn and the scattering of the demonstrators when the police became violent. As the interview closes Webster celebrates to have witnessed the first black president and believes we may soon see a woman president.
Oral History of Eddie Lee Webster, Jr, Interview 2: April 14, 2016
Interviewee: Eddie Lee Webster, Jr.
Interviewer: Chet Bush
Location: Quitman County Public Library, Marks, Mississippi
Length: Sixty-two minutes
In this second of two interviews, Webster shares about his childhood and the people who surrounded him growing up. Webster reflects on life in the rural areas of Quitman County near Lambert, MS. Webster shares about the woman who raised him, Arizona Bradford, a godmother who legally adopted Webster and his brother and sister. Bradford also raised five other children.
He discusses Bradford’s activism in the community working with Headstart and Meals-on-Wheels, and providing transportation for children to and from school. He names churches that hosted the Headstart program: Green Hill and Pleasant Ridge.
Webster lived on his grandparents’ land that they farmed together as a family. He remembers the two mules his grandfather owned for plowing the field: Buddy and Kate, and how farm life changed after his grandfather purchased his first tractor in 1966. He talks about his work performed on the farm, cutting corn and picking cotton.
Webster remembers his mother (godmother, Bradford) sewing on a pedal automated sewing machine where, as a young boy, he gathered the fabric as it came off her table. He later worked in a factory sewing pockets and seams for Levi jeans. Webster talks about the various work he has done in his life in Tennessee, Oregon, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
He identifies a local leader of the Marks community, Manuel Killebrew, as family on his godmother’s side. Killebrew operates a funeral home in town, Delta Burial Company, and serves as the Quitman County Supervisor.
Webster reflects on life in rural Quitman County when he was a boy. He remembers Saturday nights in Lambert where they went to the drugstore on Main Street for ice cream, and how his mother warned the children from venturing to the “low end” of town where the juke joints offered music and dancing on the weekends. Webster also identifies the locations of his baptism and where his family is buried.
Chet Bush is a M.A. candidate in history at the University of Mississippi. He completed this project in Dr. Jessie Wilkerson’s Contemporary U.S. History course in the Spring of 2016.