Fifty Years After Poor People’s Campaign, America’s Once-Poorest Town Still Struggles

Train tracks once divided the black and white neighborhoods of Marks, Mississippi. The town is still coping with the legacy of segregation. Andrea Morales / for NBC News

Martin Luther King Jr. cried when he visited Marks, Mississippi, in 1968. If he were alive today, “he may very well still be weeping,” one official says.

Lula Green flips a sign on the front door to “open” and offers a lesson in commerce, Mississippi Delta-style: Packaged snacks bought in bulk from Sam’s Club are arranged neatly on a long table and sell for 50 cents or $1. A slow cooker in a corner burbles with yellow cheese dip, and frozen chicken wings purchased from a Piggly Wiggly 20 miles away sizzle in a vat of hot oil. A handwritten menu on a whiteboard says a plate of the wings will set you back $6.50.

Green isn’t doing business from a storefront — the shop she owned with her late husband burned down years ago. This is the living room of her home in Marks, once the poorest community in the poorest county in the poorest state in America, where people pay in loose change and promises.

On a recent June morning, she scoops up cooked chicken into a Styrofoam package for a boy in an oversize T-shirt. He asks for a helping of the cheese, then fumbles for money in his pockets.

“Dang, that’s my last 50 cents!” the young customer says.

Green, holding up the assembled meal, pauses. “Don’t worry about it,” the 63-year-old grandmother replies, letting it slide until next time.

The people of Marks squeak by in creative ways, doing their best to help one another. That’s how it was, too, in March 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. visited here twice and residents say he cried after seeing shoeless black children.

Before his assassination that April, King called on leaders in Washington to make the eradication of poverty a national priority. He planned to launch a Poor People’s Campaign, mobilizing a caravan of destitute townsfolk to highlight economic injustice. The procession of covered wagons from Marks to Washington did take place a month after King died, but it never had the impact many had hoped for.

Fifty years later, Marks is no longer the poorest town in the nation. While its distress is visible in the rickety houses, crumbling buildings and shuttered downtown storefronts, other pockets of poverty in the Delta and across America where jobs have vanished are being squeezed even tighter.

Still, Marks is struggling. The unemployment rate in Quitman County, which contains Marks, was 6.7 percent in April, compared with 3.9 percent nationally; about 30 percent of the 1,500 people in Marks live below the federal poverty level, compared with nearly 13 percent, or 43 million people, nationally; and the town’s median household income is just over $20,500, compared with about $56,500 nationally.

In a country that prides itself on having one of the most powerful economies in the world, these figures point to the ways Marks, like many rural communities, has been left behind. Welfare and food stamps have helped to ease burdens, but federal cuts to those programs over the decades have left officials scrambling to support a town where segregation has long hindered economic mobility. An annual blues festival and an Amtrak stop that opened in May could spur tourism, though they haven’t yet led to jobs or an increase in development.

But residents aren’t ready to give up on Marks; that would mean giving up on small-town America — and on King’s dream.

If King were alive today, says Marks native Velma Benson-Wilson, Quitman County’s administrator, “he may very well still be weeping.”

WHEN KING CAME TO MARKS

Benson-Wilson, who is black, was a high school junior in 1968 when she wiggled her way through a crowd to get a glimpse of King. Her mother warned her to stay away, knowing that the presence of the 39-year-old preacher incensed the white leaders of Marks.

Marks Mississippi
Velma Benson-Wilson at the Quitman County Courthouse. Andrea Morales / NBC News

When King later spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, in his final Sunday sermon before he was killed in Memphis, he relayed the bleak conditions he had seen: “I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Quitman County, the poorest county in the United States. And I tell you I saw hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.”

Four years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared a War on Poverty, with social welfare legislation focused on education and health care. But in Marks, the movement had little effect, with conservative white politicians in Mississippi resisting federal funding because it threatened segregationist policies. King had initially been hopeful about the anti-poverty programs, but he later came to believe they were too piecemeal to be effective.

In the weeks after King’s death, his civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, carried through on his promise of a Poor People’s Campaign by creating a so-called Mule Train to Washington.

But there was trouble in Marks when a field office worker with the conference, Willie Bolden, was arrested while recruiting volunteers. In response, students and teachers marched peacefully to the town’s jail, where they were met by armed state troopers in riot gear who beat several of them for failing to disperse.

That only strengthened local residents’ resolve to get the Mule Train running. On May 13, 1968, more than 100 people, many from Quitman County, set off north in more than a dozen wagons.

Painted on tarps were messages: “Which is better? Send man to moon or feed him on Earth?”

“Stop the war and feed the poor.”

“I have a dream!”

They eventually joined tens of thousands of anti-poverty protesters on Washington’s National Mall the following month.

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SOURCE: NBC News – Erik Ortiz