Memphis, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – Marks, Mississippi – home of the Mule Train – sits about ninety (90) minutes south of Memphis, Tennessee.
Thetown of Marks was named after Leopold Marks, who left Germany to avoid fightingfor the German army. Marks became Quitman County’s first representative to thestate legislature and served for eight years.
Heencouraged the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad to come to the area backin the early 1900s by giving the railroad company, at no cost, the right-of-waythrough his plantation, plus use of his land.
Theofficial founding of the town is considered to be May 12, 1907. Fastforward six years and a black man named Walter Brownloe, accused of attacking awhite farmer’s wife, was taken from the town prison by a mob and hanged.
Thatstarted a tumultuous time for the town that led to even tougher racial tensionsin the area and poverty like no one had ever seen.
VelmaWilson grew up on a plantation in Marks.
“Historywas buried, and it was to me so significant you can’t erase it. You can’terase it. It’s a part of our national civil rights history,” said QuitmanCounty Administrator Velma Wilson.
Wilsoncame from a huge family, a family of seventeen (17).
“Therewas a lot of people that lived out on the plantation. They were dayworkers and back then there were big families,” said Wilson. “We hadno running water. We had an outside toilet. And we didn’t have a well, sowe would go to the well, a neighbor next to us, to bring water back and forth. Andfor like bathing, we would catch rainwater to take a bath. All summer growingup, we went the whole summer without shoes. We did a lot playing outside. Wemade up games. We did hopscotch and jump rope and got a lot of physicalactivity.”
Andalthough Velma knew people treated her differently because of the color of herskin … “My vision of what the world was like was very limitedbecause of not being exposed to a lot of the outside world,” said Wilson.
Shedidn’t really understand the race relations in that small Quitman County town.
“Althoughthere were the racial tensions back then, Whites were in control. Blacks had noleadership role or anything of that nature,” said Wilson. “The townto me, growing up in Marks, and the conditions because of my limited exposureto the outside world, it was all okay. Not a lot to compare how it was, theconditions, so it was very, very acceptable. And we thought it was thenorm.”
Thenorm for blacks to live on one side of the railroad tracks and whites theother.
“So,these railroad tracks here, the blacks lived on that side and the whites livedon this side. And it was beautiful homes,” said Wilson. “As faras the restaurants and all that, we weren’t – they were segregated, and weweren’t allowed to go in them.”
Foodwas scarce for African-Americans back then in Marks. So scarce, Marks wasthe starting point of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in1968.
“Don’tlook a white person in the eye. Just stay in those boundaries, and you won’tget hurt, because when King was here, she (my mother) was very fearful. Notonly when he was here … and the freedom riders walked up and down thesestreets,” said Wilson.
Kinglearned the residents then only ate beans and cornmeal. It was the poorestcounty in the United States.
“Inthe whole United States. Yea. That was in 1968, it was the poorest county, andthat is why Dr. King came,” said Wilson.
WhatKing saw brought him to tears.
“(Marian)Edelman (Children’s Defense Fund) in particular painted the picture to getRobert Kennedy to come, and then, Robert Kennedy got with Dr. King and said yougot to come and see what I discovered – the poverty that exist,” saidWilson. “When King went down on Cotton Street, he had to get into a boatto get to a home to where a mother and her child were at. He couldn’t walkbecause of the water with the lack of proper drainage. And as history wouldrecord, that’s where he cried. He wept on Cotton Street where he saw thehorrific conditions of the way people lived: the lack of not having clothes, ofnot being clothed properly; the shoes, no shoes. Third world conditions if youcan visualize that. That’s what he saw on Cotton Street.”
So,Dr. King organized the Mule Train, a group of demonstrators who rode in wagonsfrom Marks, Mississippi all the way to Washington, D.C.
“Itwas exciting because I’d never met a man like that in my life – in my wholelife,” said Mule Train Participant Eddie Webster.
Katinaasked, “What’s the one thing you remember most about this trip?”
“Firsttime I’ve ever seen this many people in my life in one place,” saidWebster.
EddieWebster joined the Mule Train. He was seventeen (17) years-old at thetime.
“Itwas hard, the way you come up, where you came from. It was – it wasn’t easy youknow,” said Webster. “You had all kinds of obstacles in theway. I got curious about what was going on. I wanted to know more andlearn more about it.”
Websterbecame Vice-President of the Youth Committee.
“Whenthey said, ‘well we gone go to DC on the mule train’, I hurried up and talkedto my momma to sign the papers and let me go,” said Webster. “Andwhen you (momma) signed the release form, I picked up, and me and the mule wentto DC. Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it wasn’t so much fun causealmost all the time we, you could end up in jail. I stayed in jail more than Istayed on the street. But, you know, it was worth it. You was trying toaccomplish something. Most towns we stopped at people would be waiting therefor us. They’d have food, give us a place to stay for the night – one thing oranother. I mean (people) you never knew, met in your life, but they welcomedyou with open arms. Anywhere we stopped, there was a church – somewhere wecould go to and then those people there would take so many people home withthem and make sure everyone had someplace to stay, feed you, and doeverything.”
“Onthe mule train. Went all the way!” said Mule Train Participant AllenWilliams.
AllenWilliams joined the Mule Train when he was just sixteen (16) years-old.
“Forsome reason, I just felt that was the right thing to do. You know duringthe struggle I seen how things were going on, I figured it was leading towardsthe struggle we were going through. You know, and the way things was then,and I figure that might better things for the black people in this area,”said Williams. “I drove what they called the chuck wagon, the food wagon.Every little town they treated us real nice. And sometimes along the way, wepicked up a few peoples that wanted to participate. They would join the wagon.When we spent the night in churches, some of them would cook. And we slept inchurches and that’s where we kept the food and stuff like that. We ate and wehad air mattresses that we slept on.”
Atthat age, Williams didn’t see danger.
“Ikind of enjoyed it. To me, it was exciting. And, at that age you know, to me itwas like a camping trip you know. I just enjoyed it,” said Williams.
Butthe ride didn’t come without scary moments.
“Themmustang ponies they were sort of wild. Them the ones that ran off when that bigtruck – we were almost to Batesville and that big truck came through blowing(it’s horn), and it ran off with the wagon,” said Williams. “We spentthe night in Alabama in a church, and I didn’t know it at the time, but Bolden– we got up that morning before daylight and hooked up the mules and wagons,and I heard Bolden say … Bolden said, ‘Ya’ll just don’t know. I didn’t sleepa wink. Them Ku Klux Klansmen, white folks was located here’. We said,click, click (grabs reins) – get on up … (laughs) and went on, but so farthat was the only time I was a little skeptical. We got out of Alabama.”
Webstersaid Alabama was a tough area to ride through.
“Alabama.The roughest night I had,” said Mule Train Participant EddieWebster.
Katinaasked, “What happened in Alabama?”
“Oh,they firebombed and shooting and everything,” said Webster. “You’rescared because when you’re riding along, you may get firebombed, anything you know.Although we had state troopers escort, but because they were there, it didn’tstop nothing, ‘cause they didn’t really care.”
Websterwas glad to reach Georgia.
“Istayed at his house (Dr. King) when we stayed there,” said Webster.
Katinaasked, “In Georgia?”
“Yea.And then we stayed there and left and went on – kept on going until we got intoDC,” said Webster.
“Howmany women went on this trip with you all?” Katina asked.
“Quitea few women,” said Webster.
BettyCrawford’s cousin was one of the women. And Bertha Burress kept notes ofthe journey.
Katinaremarks, “This is her journal. Oh my gosh!”
Ajournal noting each stop along the way.
“Muletrain. We left marks at 3:30 p.m. … 8 miles west of Batesville,” readsMarks Resident Betty Crawford.
FromMarks, Mississippi on May 13, 1968, to Batesville, Courtland, Grenada, DuckHill, Winona, Kilmichael, and Europa, Mississippi, where she notes the firstencounter of trouble with sheriff deputies. Then on to Starkville and Columbus,Mississippi, to Reform, Alabama through Tuscaloosa, Cottondale, Bessemer,Birmingham, Anniston, and Brenmen, where they were stopped by state troopers –onward to Douglasville, Georgia, and Atlanta!
“Theygot on the train in Georgia and rode through Arlington, Virginia, got off inArlington, Virginia and hooked the mules and wagons back up,” saidCrawford.
Andfinally, their nineteenth stop in Washington, D.C., a wagon ride for exactly onemonth!
“Youare documenting this mule train ride. Tell me why,” Katina asked.
“Becauseit was important to my cousin,” said Crawford. “The death ofPresident Kennedy kind of overshadowed this.”
Dr.King was assassinated too.
“Themule train left Marks May 13, 1968, and of course, Dr. King had beenassassinated. He was assassinated on April 4th. So, he was here twiceorganizing the campaign before his assassination,” said Quitman CountyAdministrator Velma Wilson. “Ralph Abernathy became the President andthen he was here along with Jesse Jackson, a lot of others. Andrew Youngwas here. I can’t think of some of the entertainers that are gone. Even SydneyPoitier was here, right here in Marks, to carry out the campaign that Dr. Kingwasn’t able to finish. They saw this as an opportunity, sort of a memorial tohim by carrying it through.”
Crawfordwants to make sure the story isn’t forgotten either. She has turned hercousin’s notes into mementos so people will never forget. From quilts todrawings and wreaths!
“Onthe wreath, the shape of the state of Mississippi! It shows the route of themule train from Marks to the state line in Alabama,” said Crawford.
Katinapoints to a wreath and ask, “What is this made of? Can I touch it?”
“Thisis made of foam. This is moss. If you put water on it, it would try togrow,” said Crawford. “And, this is talking about when Dr. King washere. This brings us from ’68 up to present day, which is the year 2000.”
Fromthis artwork to a blues quilt!
Katinaask, “What does blues have to do with Marks?”
“Theconnection to the blues is the living conditions. When I was sixteen (16), wejust got inside plumbing for the first time,” said Crawford. “Wemoved out of my grandmother’s house on Cotton Street, and we movedto Kimbrough Street.”
“So,you were on the street when Dr. Martin Luther King came, and he wept because hesaw the bad conditions?” Katina remarks.
Whenpeople in Marks decided to join the Mule Train, they were thrown off theplantations. They ended up here in a field known as “Tent City”.
“TentCity over there, that’s where they had to move and go stay!” said MuleTrain Participant Allen Williams.
Andwhen Williams returned from the trip, he was told: “I was living up inHincliff with my father on the farm. And you know, back then, ah, lots ofpeople living on plantations when they found out when they participated in that– they had to leave the plantation and move,” said Williams. “Peoplehad talked to my daddy and told him, you know. I never got no threats, butit’ll be best if I just sort of stayed away, you know, stay somewhere else.’68, it was kind of rough in this area back then, white folk, you know, didn’tcare for too much for that movement and especially black people participatingin something like that.”
“Therewas a lot of fear, lot of fear. You can imagine in 1968,” said QuitmanCounty Administrator Velma Wilson. “There were people living onplantations that depended on having that, was probably free. It was free,but they had to work in order to live in those houses, and they got paid very,very little wages to do that. So, if they were caught participating, you knowwhat would happen, right? They would end up losing their home. Nowhere tostay! The whites in particular did not want King here. As a matter offact, there was some staging of the situation to show that the poverty didn’texist, that he was painting a picture of what it was like here, but that wasnot true. They did not want him here. The history and what King did eventoday is a black eye to the whites. A lot of them have gone on. They leftthis earth, but some of the feelings was passed down. That history, some ofthat hatred was passed down to generations that exist today. It was not a goodtime for the community, ‘cause they didn’t want the world to see what Kingsaw.”
So,was the Mule Train worth the effort? And did it change anything for thecity of Marks?
“Theeyes of the people were opened up for a minute,” said Mule TrainParticipant Eddie Webster. “A great man came here, but when he left – whenhe died his dreams died with him. Everything in this town just went back to thenormal standstill. All these years and nothing has really changed. The lastfifty (50) years they seem like we’re going back to where we started at. Thiscommunity, this town. We don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have ahospital. We don’t even, only job around you don’t need an application for isthe farm. What we got? We don’t got nothing to show for what we donestruggled for.”
Wedecided to verify Mr. Webster’s claims about Marks, Mississippi in QuitmanCounty. We began with the grocery store. Quitman County is home to many areasthat are considered food deserts. That’s according to data from the UnitedStates Department of Agriculture. Those areas include the city of Marks, thecounty seat of Quitman, the town of Lambert, the town of Sledge, the town ofCrowder, the town of Crenshaw, plus Darling which is unincorporated.
Thecity of Marks, and all the towns mentioned don’t have a single supermarket. Theentire county is a food desert.
So,what exactly is a food desert? Remember Velma Wilson who grew up inMarks? She’s now the county administrator and explains it for us.
“Afood desert is an area like Quitman County which does not have a grocerystore,” said Wilson.
Basically,it’s an area where it’s difficult to buy affordable or good-quality freshfood. Something 89-year-old Earline Melchor knows all too well.
“Youcan’t even buy an onion,” said Quitman County Resident Earline Melchor.
Wefollowed Ms. Earline from her Falcon home to her nearest grocery store,Kroger. It was twenty-nine (29) miles away – one way, and in anothercounty.
“Rightnow, I have to hire somebody to take me to Batesville or Clarksdale (Mississippi),drive my car,” said Melchor.
Aftershe gets food to survive, she runs into another problem after getting thegroceries back home.
“Igot milk, cheese, margarine, greens, grapes. What else did I get? Water! Seeour (water) system is not good, so we have to buy water,” said Melchor.
Andaccording to Quitman County Administrator Wilson, food deserts are becoming amajor issue for cities and towns with high impoverished populations likeQuitman County.
“Peoplehave to travel to get fresh goods, produce about thirty (30) minutes one way –almost an hour round trip,” said Wilson.
Wilsonsays food deserts raise obesity rates because people can’t buy healthy food.And childhood obesity can lead to students under-performing in school, whichleads to health issues.
“Forty-two(42%) percent of Quitman County faces an obesity rate and not only that,hypertension. A lot of that is caused by not having fresh foods,” saidWilson.
Fooddeserts are a result of larger grocery stores closing in low-incomeneighborhoods. But according to Ms. Melchor, Quitman County’s once largestgrocer wasn’t sufficient.
“TheBrooks had a grocery store, but they weren’t equivalent in everything. Theydidn’t have fresh vegetables unless somebody brought some in like greens, okrafor them to sale,” said Melchor.
Accordingto the 2010 U.S. Census, Quitman County’s population is almost 73-hundred(7,300). Most recent data estimates from the census show the racialmakeup of Quitman County is twenty-seven (27%) percent white, almostseventy-one (71%) percent African-American. It is still one of thepoorest counties in our nation with a median annual household income of justover $25,000.
Andit has an alarming poverty rate of forty-point-nine (40.9%) percent. Thecurrent unemployment rate is eight-point-seven (8.7%) percent, which is nearlydouble that of our national rate at four-point-four (4.4%) percent. So, why areQuitman County and City of Marks, Mississippi still so poor?
“Itgoes back probably to the time when there was sharecroppers, when we lived onplantations,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson. “It’sjust a cycle of us not having the financial means to really pull out of poverty.”
Thatpoverty again having an effect on healthcare. Remember Ms. Melchor.
“Ihad a heart attack May 23rd,” said Quitman County Resident EarlineMelchor. It was May of 2018.
TodayQuitman County only has two medical clinics. One is open five days a week. Theother only two days a week. The county hospital closed in October of2016.
WhenMs. Melchor had a blood clot that blocked blood flow to the heart: “I had2 falls. They didn’t want me to have no falls. They x-rayed me from mytoes to my head,” said Melchor.
Shesays it was only by the grace of GOD she survived.
“Ifyou get sick, you gotta call an ambulance and go to Clarksdale, Batesville, orOxford,” said Melchor.
Shewas taken to Clarksdale and told: “When I got sick, they took me to Clarksdale,the ambulance here. And then we got to Clarksdale, the doctor said, ‘Wecan’t do nothing for her. She gotta go to Memphis’,” said Melchor.
Morethan one-hundred (100) rural hospitals have closed in the United States since2010. And a recent study says this could have life-or-death implicationsfor rural communities. The distance that ambulances have to travel topatients after a hospital closes, as well as the limited number of ambulancesin rural counties like Quitman County, means that residents there may have towait for care after a car accident, heart attack like Ms. Melchor or otherhealth emergency. Researchers say as a result, mortality rates rise almostsix (6%) percent in rural areas.
Ms.Melchor was lucky. And today when she needs to see a physician: “I have topay to go to the doctor,” said Melchor. “I pay a lady and a man andmy nephew to take me. I buy my own gas and go in my car sometimes. AndMamie White and her nephew have been real nice by taking me in their car, sothat’s how I get to the doctor.”
“Presidentof Quitman County Board of Supervisors,” said Quitman County Board ofSupervisor President Manuel Killibrew when asked his title. Manuel Killibrew is Board Supervisor President.
“WhenI was growing up here in Quitman County, Quitman County was one of the boomingareas. We had factories, and we had jobs everywhere. But now – I even worked ina grocery store,” said Killibrew.
“Allthese stores have closed. We lost the last and the jobs have left here. Theindustry closed,” said Killibrew. “We have a lot of people driveto Southaven, Memphis, and Batesville, and Oxford, where they have to commuteto work. Southaven, you’re looking at an hour and fifteen-minute drive.”
Katinaasked, “As Board President, how do you get people and businesses to comeback?”
“Wejust have to go out and solicit peoples, and I think maybe you sitting here andI’m talking, maybe somebody out there will say, ‘Hey we gonna come and helpy’all’, and that’s what we need,” said Killibrew. “We have goodpeoples here. People willing to work. The workforce is here.”
Residentssay the only new life in the city is the new Amtrak route from New Orleans toChicago. The train began stopping in Marks on April 4, 2018, partlybecause of the Mule Train historical marker.
“Wehave the Amtrak station now that draws people maybe fifty (50) miles around …like we got people that used to live in Senatobia and Tunica. They will come toMarks now to catch Amtrak instead of going to Memphis,” said Killibrew.
“SenatorWicker and Senator Cochran, who is now deceased, and of course, CongressmanBennie Thompson — they were champions for the stop. They saw the need for thestop here,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson.
Ifthey got a train stop, couldn’t they get the county a grocery store, ahospital? We reached out to Congressmen Bennie Thompson because Quitman Countyis in his district.
“It’sa work in progress. We do the best we can,” said 2nd CongressionalDistrict Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
Katinasays, “To people who say you are my Congressmen, you’re supposed to helpme get a hospital, get me a grocery store ….”
“Isay, I’m happy to do it. And, I’ll show you communities where we’ve been ableto do it. And, if you are prepared to do the hard work, then I’m prepared toget you that facility,” answers Thompson.
ButCongressmen Thompson says it won’t be easy. There are several challenges.
Let’sstart with the hospital. He says getting doctors to work in small, ruralcommunities is a task. Then there’s the cost.
“Ahospital requires investment. But it requires a certain amount of Medicaid, Medicarepatients, certain amount of people with regular health insurance and payingcustomers,” said Congressmen Thompson.
“There’sa certificate of need that now you have to apply for to put a hospital in anarea. That means they might say, ‘The hospital in Clarksdale, hospital inBatesville can serve Quitman County’. So, there are some regulatoryrequirements that you have to meet once you’ve been closed, that you just can’tstart back up just because you used to be a hospital,” said CongressmenThompson.
Andthe grocery store?
“Justlike any major store, if I’m the only store within thirty (30) miles of here,you wouldn’t build a store ten (10) miles from that store when you gone end upshopping at my store anyway. So, that’s that numbers game,” said Thompson.“If we’re gonna do that in Quitman and Marks and Quitman County,Mississippi, the board of supervisors, the city of Marks, as well as whateverthe economic development entity is for that area, are gonna have to say, ‘Welp,we’ll help you find a building’. And if it’s a building we need to acquire, wemight incentive it by giving you a dollar a year lease on the building. We cansay for every person you hire from this community, we’ll pay for the trainingof that person. So for the first sixty (60) to ninety (90) days, you don’t havea payroll. But you got to put all those pieces together. And so, there’sno magic wand for this to happen, and it’s a local – locally driveninitiative. When a local official doesn’t get involved on problem-solving,in a lot of instances, that’s when those communities don’t move as fast as theyneed to.”
Inother words, as the sign reads behind the Congressmen’s head, ‘This is thewhat. Action planning is the how’. He says locals need to start planningand acting.
“Ilove this community. And I’m looking forward to this community to boom againand real soon,” said Quitman CountyBoard of Supervisor President Manuel Killibrew.
Killibrewalso joined the Mule Train, and he said the one thing it taught him: “Lookat the good in peoples. Don’t look at the bad, and we have the workforce thatwill work. People will work here if they had a job,” said Killibrew.
Hesays a grocery store and a hospital would bring jobs back to the area.
Andthis angel statue praying that still sits on the grounds of the now closedhospital is what Killibrew says this county will continue to do – pray, untilsomeone helps or until God sends them another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Peoplein Marks, we fear God. That’s one thing, and we a church-going community,”said Killibrew. “And, we really believe in God here. And we believe inprayer.”
“Youcan’t give up,” said 2nd CongressionalDistrict Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
CountyAdministrator Velma Wilson says the Mule Train ride that began in Marks,Mississippi, may not have brought change to their often overlooked andforgotten city, but it did bring change to the world that many still benefitfrom today.
“Theimpact of the Poor People’s Campaign just didn’t affect Quitman County andMississippi – it affected the whole entire country because of the WIC program, Pellgrants, a lot of initiatives came out of that movement,” said Wilson.
Andfrom their residents taking a bold stand in the 60s to help the nation, she toois prayerful that others won’t quit on Quitman County and will now help them.