This week, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival began an organizing tour meant to connect and lift up the struggles of the poor and dispossessed across the country. We started our tour in Marks, Mississippi, where fifty years ago Dr. King came to listen to some of the nation’s poorest people, an experience which brought him to tears — and where he encountered an organizing spirit that ultimately led to a path-breaking Mule Train from Marks to Resurrection City, in Washington, D.C.
At the core of this first stop was an honoring of movement history and those who are picking up the baton in our time. We drove down from Memphis, where the day before Fight for 15 fast-food workers went on strike on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Thousands joined in cities around the country with a clear and visionary message: this is about more than a single pay raise or contract. This is about a moral revolution of values. This is about building a long-term and transformative Poor People’s Campaign to end systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological destruction.
Fifty years after Dr. King’s visit, Marks is not much better off. It’s a small town caught in cotton country, its proximity to Parchman State Penitentiary a reminder of its slave-plantation past. Poverty is widespread and the closest grocery store is miles away. But among the 1,500 residents there is also a tradition of resistance to which we all owe a debt and a renewed commitment to organize and build power.
We were fortunate to meet in the packed Valley Queen Baptist Church, a few blocks from Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. Many folks recounted their memories of 1968 and it became clear that everyone in Marks, old and young, has been shaped in some way by the original Poor People’s Campaign. One man we met was Jimmy Matthews, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran and the county’s Emergency Management Director, who has spent most of his life in the town. At eighteen, Mr. Matthews enrolled in the Peace Corps and left Marks before he could join the Mule Train. But like many around him, he was inspired by what was happening and was moved to take action, including a student walk-out earlier that year.
We spoke over a community lunch and he shared some thoughts on the past fifty years.
Noam Sandweiss-Back: How would you describe the feeling in Marks in 1968, when Dr. King came and as many prepared to embark on the Mule Train and join the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C.?
Jimmy Matthews: It was a feeling of jubilance, even after some of us had been beaten and cursed at. Dr. King’s speech [in Marks] gave us hope that no matter what our adversaries put on us, we were compelled to do something that had never been done. We had been stagnant for so long. Some of our parents didn’t believe that it would do any good, other than get us in trouble. They thought, “Even though the Mule Train is leaving for Washington, what will you bring back?” They were afraid for our lives if we went on the Mule Train.
My parents lived in a plantation owner’s house [in the country]. It didn’t belong to them. Because the landowner had a grip on us, it was unbelievable. We didn’t have anything. We were kind of stuck. They held back out of fear of having nowhere to live. The people who lived in town were more liberated even from the start — most owned their own homes or were renting from other blacks. They were more independent. It’s not that the others weren’t with it, but it was fear that kept them back. It was absolutely fear of not having a house that kept them back. It was nine of us in a one-room-and-a-half house. That was about it. Without that, we would have had nothing.
NSB: What impact did the Poor People’s Campaign have on the people around you?
JM: It had a tremendous impact. Many left the farm after and got enough courage to join others. They followed the Poor People’s Campaign after they saw some of the success.
NSB: What is it like for you to have the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in Marks fifty years later?
JM: It is a reliving experience. Reliving an event that happened fifty years ago in your life. But the struggle has not stopped. We lived it day by day, month by month, year by year. It’s not like I’ve been gone and come back to some liberation. It’s like a continuous living event. It’s jubilant that it is being resurrected and I’m happy for our young people. They are the ones who are going to have to stand up to say, “This can’t occur, I will stand up for my rights, I’m not going to lay down and take it.” When you’re a slave you know nothing but slavery. But when you know better you do better.
The struggle has not stopped. We lived it day by day, month by month, year by year. It’s not like I’ve been gone and come back to some liberation. It’s like a continuous living event.
NSB: Why is it important that this Campaign comes back to Marks and deepens these relationships?
JM: It is important because we know that numbers count. Marks and Quitman County can’t do it alone. Nationally, we can move mountains. Individually, it’s so slow you can’t measure it. But nationally you can see the stair moving on a tilt toward progress. And we need national attention. We need the Poor People’s Campaign as a force to make a difference for poor people. Because that’s what it’s all about. Rich people don’t have problems other than keeping up with their bank accounts. I have problems of feeding the hungry. We’re talking about nutritional food, basic necessities, housing, clothing, protection, equal treatment, equal pay. These are the things that matter to poor people. And unless we unite together, we won’t be able to change the mindsets of those who have more.
NSB: What wisdom would you share with young folks who are organizing around the country?
JM: Knowledge is power. Knowing your history is important — that you don’t repeat or allow repetitious behavior to occur. We need to know what’s going on locally, around the state, and nationally. And we need to pay attention to those who have been through the struggle and can provide some solid advice. We want people to not fight each other, but to love each other. And to trust the one who knows the best — God.
If there is one thing I could tell them, it’s that together we stand. Divided, we surely will fail.