Memphis, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – Marks, Mississippi – home of the Mule Train – sits about ninety (90) minutes south of Memphis, Tennessee.
The town of Marks was named after Leopold Marks, who left Germany to avoid fighting for the German army. Marks became Quitman County’s first representative to the state legislature and served for eight years.
He encouraged the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad to come to the area back in the early 1900s by giving the railroad company, at no cost, the right-of-way through his plantation, plus use of his land.
The official founding of the town is considered to be May 12, 1907. Fast forward six years and a black man named Walter Brownloe, accused of attacking a white farmer’s wife, was taken from the town prison by a mob and hanged.
That started a tumultuous time for the town that led to even tougher racial tensions in the area and poverty like no one had ever seen.
Velma Wilson grew up on a plantation in Marks.
“History was buried, and it was to me so significant you can’t erase it. You can’t erase it. It’s a part of our national civil rights history,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson.
Wilson came from a huge family, a family of seventeen (17).
“There was a lot of people that lived out on the plantation. They were day workers and back then there were big families,” said Wilson. “We had no running water. We had an outside toilet. And we didn’t have a well, so we would go to the well, a neighbor next to us, to bring water back and forth. And for like bathing, we would catch rainwater to take a bath. All summer growing up, we went the whole summer without shoes. We did a lot playing outside. We made up games. We did hopscotch and jump rope and got a lot of physical activity.”
And although Velma knew people treated her differently because of the color of her skin … “My vision of what the world was like was very limited because of not being exposed to a lot of the outside world,” said Wilson.
She didn’t really understand the race relations in that small Quitman County town.
“Although there were the racial tensions back then, Whites were in control. Blacks had no leadership role or anything of that nature,” said Wilson. “The town to me, growing up in Marks, and the conditions because of my limited exposure to the outside world, it was all okay. Not a lot to compare how it was, the conditions, so it was very, very acceptable. And we thought it was the norm.”
The norm for blacks to live on one side of the railroad tracks and whites the other.
“So, these railroad tracks here, the blacks lived on that side and the whites lived on this side. And it was beautiful homes,” said Wilson. “As far as the restaurants and all that, we weren’t – they were segregated, and we weren’t allowed to go in them.”
Food was scarce for African-Americans back then in Marks. So scarce, Marks was the starting point of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
“Don’t look a white person in the eye. Just stay in those boundaries, and you won’t get hurt, because when King was here, she (my mother) was very fearful. Not only when he was here … and the freedom riders walked up and down these streets,” said Wilson.
King learned the residents then only ate beans and cornmeal. It was the poorest county in the United States.
“In the whole United States. Yea. That was in 1968, it was the poorest county, and that is why Dr. King came,” said Wilson.
What King saw brought him to tears.
“(Marian) Edelman (Children’s Defense Fund) in particular painted the picture to get Robert Kennedy to come, and then, Robert Kennedy got with Dr. King and said you got to come and see what I discovered – the poverty that exist,” said Wilson. “When King went down on Cotton Street, he had to get into a boat to get to a home to where a mother and her child were at. He couldn’t walk because of the water with the lack of proper drainage. And as history would record, that’s where he cried. He wept on Cotton Street where he saw the horrific conditions of the way people lived: the lack of not having clothes, of not being clothed properly; the shoes, no shoes. Third world conditions if you can visualize that. That’s what he saw on Cotton Street.”
So, Dr. King organized the Mule Train, a group of demonstrators who rode in wagons from Marks, Mississippi all the way to Washington, D.C.
“It was exciting because I’d never met a man like that in my life – in my whole life,” said Mule Train Participant Eddie Webster.
Katina asked, “What’s the one thing you remember most about this trip?”
“First time I’ve ever seen this many people in my life in one place,” said Webster.
Eddie Webster joined the Mule Train. He was seventeen (17) years-old at the time.
“It was hard, the way you come up, where you came from. It was – it wasn’t easy you know,” said Webster. “You had all kinds of obstacles in the way. I got curious about what was going on. I wanted to know more and learn more about it.”
Webster became Vice-President of the Youth Committee.
“When they said, ‘well we gone go to DC on the mule train’, I hurried up and talked to my momma to sign the papers and let me go,” said Webster. “And when you (momma) signed the release form, I picked up, and me and the mule went to DC. Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it wasn’t so much fun cause almost all the time we, you could end up in jail. I stayed in jail more than I stayed on the street. But, you know, it was worth it. You was trying to accomplish something. Most towns we stopped at people would be waiting there for us. They’d have food, give us a place to stay for the night – one thing or another. I mean (people) you never knew, met in your life, but they welcomed you with open arms. Anywhere we stopped, there was a church – somewhere we could go to and then those people there would take so many people home with them and make sure everyone had someplace to stay, feed you, and do everything.”
“On the mule train. Went all the way!” said Mule Train Participant Allen Williams.
Allen Williams joined the Mule Train when he was just sixteen (16) years-old.
“For some reason, I just felt that was the right thing to do. You know during the struggle I seen how things were going on, I figured it was leading towards the 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, we picked 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 in churches and that’s where we kept the food and stuff like that. We ate and we had air mattresses that we slept on.”
At that age, Williams didn’t see danger.
“I kind of enjoyed it. To me, it was exciting. And, at that age you know, to me it was like a camping trip you know. I just enjoyed it,” said Williams.
But the ride didn’t come without scary moments.
“Them mustang ponies they were sort of wild. Them the ones that ran off when that big truck – 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 spent the 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 sleep a 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 far that was the only time I was a little skeptical. We got out of Alabama.”
Webster said Alabama was a tough area to ride through.
“Alabama. The roughest night I had,” said Mule Train Participant Eddie Webster.
Katina asked, “What happened in Alabama?”
“Oh, they firebombed and shooting and everything,” said Webster. “You’re scared 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’t stop nothing, ‘cause they didn’t really care.”
Webster was glad to reach Georgia.
“I stayed at his house (Dr. King) when we stayed there,” said Webster.
Katina asked, “In Georgia?”
“Yea. And then we stayed there and left and went on – kept on going until we got into DC,” said Webster.
“How many women went on this trip with you all?” Katina asked.
“Quite a few women,” said Webster.
Betty Crawford’s cousin was one of the women. And Bertha Burress kept notes of the journey.
Katina remarks, “This is her journal. Oh my gosh!”
A journal noting each stop along the way.
“Mule train. We left marks at 3:30 p.m. … 8 miles west of Batesville,” reads Marks Resident Betty Crawford.
From Marks, Mississippi on May 13, 1968, to Batesville, Courtland, Grenada, Duck Hill, Winona, Kilmichael, and Europa, Mississippi, where she notes the first encounter 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!
“They got on the train in Georgia and rode through Arlington, Virginia, got off in Arlington, Virginia and hooked the mules and wagons back up,” said Crawford.
And finally, their nineteenth stop in Washington, D.C., a wagon ride for exactly one month!
“You are documenting this mule train ride. Tell me why,” Katina asked.
“Because it was important to my cousin,” said Crawford. “The death of President Kennedy kind of overshadowed this.”
Dr. King was assassinated too.
“The mule train left Marks May 13, 1968, and of course, Dr. King had been assassinated. He was assassinated on April 4th. So, he was here twice organizing the campaign before his assassination,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson. “Ralph Abernathy became the President and then he was here along with Jesse Jackson, a lot of others. Andrew Young was here. I can’t think of some of the entertainers that are gone. Even Sydney Poitier was here, right here in Marks, to carry out the campaign that Dr. King wasn’t able to finish. They saw this as an opportunity, sort of a memorial to him by carrying it through.”
Crawford wants to make sure the story isn’t forgotten either. She has turned her cousin’s notes into mementos so people will never forget. From quilts to drawings and wreaths!
“On the wreath, the shape of the state of Mississippi! It shows the route of the mule train from Marks to the state line in Alabama,” said Crawford.
Katina points to a wreath and ask, “What is this made of? Can I touch it?”
“This is made of foam. This is moss. If you put water on it, it would try to grow,” said Crawford. “And, this is talking about when Dr. King was here. This brings us from ’68 up to present day, which is the year 2000.”
From this artwork to a blues quilt!
Katina ask, “What does blues have to do with Marks?”
“The connection to the blues is the living conditions. When I was sixteen (16), we just got inside plumbing for the first time,” said Crawford. “We moved out of my grandmother’s house on Cotton Street, and we moved to Kimbrough Street.”
“So, you were on the street when Dr. Martin Luther King came, and he wept because he saw the bad conditions?” Katina remarks.
When people in Marks decided to join the Mule Train, they were thrown off the plantations. They ended up here in a field known as “Tent City”.
“Tent City over there, that’s where they had to move and go stay!” said Mule Train Participant Allen Williams.
And when Williams returned from the trip, he was told: “I was living up in Hincliff with my father on the farm. And you know, back then, ah, lots of people living on plantations when they found out when they participated in that – they had to leave the plantation and move,” said Williams. “People had talked to my daddy and told him, you know. I never got no threats, but it’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’t care for too much for that movement and especially black people participating in something like that.”
“There was a lot of fear, lot of fear. You can imagine in 1968,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson. “There were people living on plantations 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 know what would happen, right? They would end up losing their home. Nowhere to stay! The whites in particular did not want King here. As a matter of fact, there was some staging of the situation to show that the poverty didn’t exist, that he was painting a picture of what it was like here, but that was not true. They did not want him here. The history and what King did even today is a black eye to the whites. A lot of them have gone on. They left this earth, but some of the feelings was passed down. That history, some of that hatred was passed down to generations that exist today. It was not a good time for the community, ‘cause they didn’t want the world to see what King saw.”
So, was the Mule Train worth the effort? And did it change anything for the city of Marks?
“The eyes of the people were opened up for a minute,” said Mule Train Participant Eddie Webster. “A great man came here, but when he left – when he died his dreams died with him. Everything in this town just went back to the normal standstill. All these years and nothing has really changed. The last fifty (50) years they seem like we’re going back to where we started at. This community, this town. We don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have a hospital. We don’t even, only job around you don’t need an application for is the farm. What we got? We don’t got nothing to show for what we done struggled for.”
We decided to verify Mr. Webster’s claims about Marks, Mississippi in Quitman County. We began with the grocery store. Quitman County is home to many areas that are considered food deserts. That’s according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. Those areas include the city of Marks, the county seat of Quitman, the town of Lambert, the town of Sledge, the town of Crowder, the town of Crenshaw, plus Darling which is unincorporated.
The city of Marks, and all the towns mentioned don’t have a single supermarket. The entire county is a food desert.
So, what exactly is a food desert? Remember Velma Wilson who grew up in Marks? She’s now the county administrator and explains it for us.
“A food desert is an area like Quitman County which does not have a grocery store,” said Wilson.
Basically, it’s an area where it’s difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Something 89-year-old Earline Melchor knows all too well.
“You can’t even buy an onion,” said Quitman County Resident Earline Melchor.
We followed Ms. Earline from her Falcon home to her nearest grocery store, Kroger. It was twenty-nine (29) miles away – one way, and in another county.
“Right now, I have to hire somebody to take me to Batesville or Clarksdale (Mississippi), drive my car,” said Melchor.
After she gets food to survive, she runs into another problem after getting the groceries back home.
“I got milk, cheese, margarine, greens, grapes. What else did I get? Water! See our (water) system is not good, so we have to buy water,” said Melchor.
And according to Quitman County Administrator Wilson, food deserts are becoming a major issue for cities and towns with high impoverished populations like Quitman County.
“People have to travel to get fresh goods, produce about thirty (30) minutes one way – almost an hour round trip,” said Wilson.
Wilson says food deserts raise obesity rates because people can’t buy healthy food. And childhood obesity can lead to students under-performing in school, which leads 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,” said Wilson.
Food deserts are a result of larger grocery stores closing in low-income neighborhoods. But according to Ms. Melchor, Quitman County’s once largest grocer wasn’t sufficient.
“The Brooks had a grocery store, but they weren’t equivalent in everything. They didn’t have fresh vegetables unless somebody brought some in like greens, okra for them to sale,” said Melchor.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Quitman County’s population is almost 73-hundred (7,300). Most recent data estimates from the census show the racial makeup of Quitman County is twenty-seven (27%) percent white, almost seventy-one (71%) percent African-American. It is still one of the poorest counties in our nation with a median annual household income of just over $25,000.
And it has an alarming poverty rate of forty-point-nine (40.9%) percent. The current unemployment rate is eight-point-seven (8.7%) percent, which is nearly double that of our national rate at four-point-four (4.4%) percent. So, why are Quitman County and City of Marks, Mississippi still so poor?
“It goes back probably to the time when there was sharecroppers, when we lived on plantations,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson. “It’s just a cycle of us not having the financial means to really pull out of poverty.”
That poverty again having an effect on healthcare. Remember Ms. Melchor.
“I had a heart attack May 23rd,” said Quitman County Resident Earline Melchor. It was May of 2018.
Today Quitman County only has two medical clinics. One is open five days a week. The other only two days a week. The county hospital closed in October of 2016.
When Ms. Melchor had a blood clot that blocked blood flow to the heart: “I had 2 falls. They didn’t want me to have no falls. They x-rayed me from my toes to my head,” said Melchor.
She says it was only by the grace of GOD she survived.
“If you get sick, you gotta call an ambulance and go to Clarksdale, Batesville, or Oxford,” said Melchor.
She was 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, ‘We can’t do nothing for her. She gotta go to Memphis’,” said Melchor.
More than one-hundred (100) rural hospitals have closed in the United States since 2010. And a recent study says this could have life-or-death implications for rural communities. The distance that ambulances have to travel to patients after a hospital closes, as well as the limited number of ambulances in rural counties like Quitman County, means that residents there may have to wait for care after a car accident, heart attack like Ms. Melchor or other health emergency. Researchers say as a result, mortality rates rise almost six (6%) percent in rural areas.
Ms. Melchor was lucky. And today when she needs to see a physician: “I have to pay to go to the doctor,” said Melchor. “I pay a lady and a man and my nephew to take me. I buy my own gas and go in my car sometimes. And Mamie White and her nephew have been real nice by taking me in their car, so that’s how I get to the doctor.”
“President of Quitman County Board of Supervisors,” said Quitman County Board of Supervisor President Manuel Killibrew when asked his title. Manuel Killibrew is Board Supervisor President.
“When I was growing up here in Quitman County, Quitman County was one of the booming areas. We had factories, and we had jobs everywhere. But now – I even worked in a grocery store,” said Killibrew.
“All these stores have closed. We lost the last and the jobs have left here. The industry closed,” said Killibrew. “We have a lot of people drive to Southaven, Memphis, and Batesville, and Oxford, where they have to commute to work. Southaven, you’re looking at an hour and fifteen-minute drive.”
Katina asked, “As Board President, how do you get people and businesses to come back?”
“We just have to go out and solicit peoples, and I think maybe you sitting here and I’m talking, maybe somebody out there will say, ‘Hey we gonna come and help y’all’, and that’s what we need,” said Killibrew. “We have good peoples here. People willing to work. The workforce is here.”
Residents say the only new life in the city is the new Amtrak route from New Orleans to Chicago. The train began stopping in Marks on April 4, 2018, partly because of the Mule Train historical marker.
“We have 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 to Marks now to catch Amtrak instead of going to Memphis,” said Killibrew.
“Senator Wicker and Senator Cochran, who is now deceased, and of course, Congressman Bennie Thompson — they were champions for the stop. They saw the need for the stop here,” said Quitman County Administrator Velma Wilson.
If they got a train stop, couldn’t they get the county a grocery store, a hospital? We reached out to Congressmen Bennie Thompson because Quitman County is in his district.
“It’s a work in progress. We do the best we can,” said 2nd Congressional District Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
Katina says, “To people who say you are my Congressmen, you’re supposed to help me get a hospital, get me a grocery store ….”
“I say, I’m happy to do it. And, I’ll show you communities where we’ve been able to do it. And, if you are prepared to do the hard work, then I’m prepared to get you that facility,” answers Thompson.
But Congressmen Thompson says it won’t be easy. There are several challenges.
Let’s start with the hospital. He says getting doctors to work in small, rural communities is a task. Then there’s the cost.
“A hospital requires investment. But it requires a certain amount of Medicaid, Medicare patients, certain amount of people with regular health insurance and paying customers,” said Congressmen Thompson.
“There’s a certificate of need that now you have to apply for to put a hospital in an area. That means they might say, ‘The hospital in Clarksdale, hospital in Batesville can serve Quitman County’. So, there are some regulatory requirements that you have to meet once you’ve been closed, that you just can’t start back up just because you used to be a hospital,” said Congressmen Thompson.
And the grocery store?
“Just like 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 up shopping 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 whatever the 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, we might incentive it by giving you a dollar a year lease on the building. We can say for every person you hire from this community, we’ll pay for the training of that person. So for the first sixty (60) to ninety (90) days, you don’t have a payroll. But you got to put all those pieces together. And so, there’s no magic wand for this to happen, and it’s a local – locally driven initiative. 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 they need to.”
In other words, as the sign reads behind the Congressmen’s head, ‘This is the what. Action planning is the how’. He says locals need to start planning and acting.
“I love this community. And I’m looking forward to this community to boom again and real soon,” said Quitman County Board of Supervisor President Manuel Killibrew.
Killibrew also joined the Mule Train, and he said the one thing it taught him: “Look at the good in peoples. Don’t look at the bad, and we have the workforce that will work. People will work here if they had a job,” said Killibrew.
He says a grocery store and a hospital would bring jobs back to the area.
And this angel statue praying that still sits on the grounds of the now closed hospital is what Killibrew says this county will continue to do – pray, until someone helps or until God sends them another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“People in 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 in prayer.”
“You can’t give up,” said 2nd Congressional District Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
County Administrator Velma Wilson says the Mule Train ride that began in Marks, Mississippi, may not have brought change to their often overlooked and forgotten city, but it did bring change to the world that many still benefit from today.
“The impact of the Poor People’s Campaign just didn’t affect Quitman County and Mississippi – it affected the whole entire country because of the WIC program, Pell grants, a lot of initiatives came out of that movement,” said Wilson.
And from their residents taking a bold stand in the 60s to help the nation, she too is prayerful that others won’t quit on Quitman County and will now help them.