Note: This is the first part of a two-part post. Read the second part here.
In this year of anniversaries—fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fifty-year war on poverty—I think it is particularly appropriate to focus on the anti-poverty aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agenda. Recently President Obama, a black man who has been elected not once but twice, talked during the State of the Union speech about inequality as a signature issue of our time. In this context, I want to reflect on and honor a lesser known March on Washington that Dr. King planned and what it suggests about his mission for how we might build one nation that brings all people along.
In 1967, Dr. King was keenly aware of the importance of broadening the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public accommodation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to reintegrate politics. After those important watershed victories, Dr. King saw poverty as the next key issue for the movement, and he knew that arousing the nation’s conscience about poverty required a new approach encompassing all of America’s poor. A young African-American attorney named Marian Wright (later Edelman) was director of the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). She urged Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to focus on employment and job training as a means of alleviating poverty. She recommended that SCLC stage a series of demonstrations in Washington, DC, to bring national attention to this new direction of the movement.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy often told a story of going to Marks, Mississippi—the poorest hamlet of the poorest county in the nation—with Dr. King as they planned what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign. They visited a daycare center at lunchtime. “There was one apple,” Dr. Abernathy said. “And they took this apple and cut it into four pieces for four hungry waiting students. And when Dr. King realized that that was all they had for lunch, he began to cry. The tears came streaming down his cheek. And he had to leave the room.”
Then and there, Dr. King determined that his anti-poverty campaign should begin in Marks, with a caravan of covered wagons headed to Washington, which they would call “The Mule Train.” The mule and the covered wagon would be the most potent symbol of dirt-poor black farmers of the South. For them and others in rural areas, little had changed by the 1960s. In the black sharecroppers’ world, poverty and hunger were rampant, jobs were scarce, and any wages that could be had were inadequate.
But from the beginning, Dr. King envisioned a multiracial campaign. Dr. King and his loyal lieutenants wanted caravans of poor blacks, whites, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans to come from all of their isolated corners to the public spotlight of the National Mall to demand that Congress enact an “economic bill of rights.” They knew they had to transcend race in their fight for economic justice.
Of course Dr. King was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968, but Rev. Abernathy and SCLC were determined to see Dr. King’s vision through. Scores of people played a role in bringing his idea for the mule train to fruition, but my father was the person who found the mules.
My father, Dr. John L. Cashin, Jr., was a two-time valedictorian and a dentist but also an agitator who didn’t mind spending thousands of his own dollars for mules and supplies, or going to Marks to get in the mud and help build the wagons. I have a vivid memory of being there—the smell of mule dung is potent.
It took the Mule Train almost a month to travel from Marks, Mississippi, to Atlanta, Georgia. A willing band of about a hundred men, women, and children left behind their hardscrabble lives for a tough journey through Dixie, moving at a pace of about twenty-five miles a day. Their painted wagon covers sported urgent messages that were easily read when viewed on network television. “Stop the War, Feed the Poor” and “Jesus was a Marcher Too” were my father’s favorites.
The Mule Train was far behind schedule by the time it reached Atlanta. Lest they miss the main event, the mules and the riders rode a real train to Alexandria for the final trek into Washington. By June 19th (“Juneteenth”), Solidarity Day for the campaign, the Mule Train joined alongside the reflecting pool where a rainbow of poor people had erected Resurrection City on the Mall, a settlement of tents—not unlike Occupy settlements—that housed some 7,000 people. It had begun in early May 1968 and was meant as a symbol of rebirth from the depths of oppression, campaign officials said. But rainfalls in May and June were far heavier than usual, and much of Resurrection City had become a mud swamp. With its minimal living conditions, the weather, overcrowding, and conflicts among differing constituencies, Resurrection City soon became a metaphor for the very conditions being protested by the campaign.
More than 50,000 people were on the Mall for the culminating rally on Solidarity Day. But no economic bill of rights resulted. And, without Dr. King to offer a rousing speech on the Mall, that campaign, and its message of economic justice, was largely erased from our nation’s collective memory.
Decades later, when I discovered a fresh, unused mule bit and harness in my parents’ attic, I would dust off the memory of my family’s involvement with the Mule Train. When I brought the unused mule bit and harness down from the attic, my father let me have the contraption. For ten years I hung it on a wall in my foyer in Washington, DC, and enjoyed explaining it to any visitor, until my husband finally prevailed upon me to draw inspiration from it from the home office where I write. Virtually none of our guests had ever heard of the Mule Train, and only a few knew something about the Poor People’s Campaign. My guests’ ignorance about it contrasted sharply with the urgent passion my parents had brought to this cause and reminded me that, in an activist’s life, the victory, if there is one, is often in the mere act of trying.
Was the Poor People’s Campaign in vain? I think not. For those who were there, and for those like myself who have studied it as an early model of multiracial coalition building, it was a shining example of our potential to transcend our differences of class and race and come together around a common cause.
At the time of the Poor People’s Campaign, the nation was about 87% white, 10% black, and 3% other peoples of color. Our discourse about civil rights and poverty was largely a “black-white” conversation, to the extent we were conversing at all. The issue of poverty was largely about black poverty and at the time of the campaign, about 40% of blacks lived in poverty.
Dr. King understood that we would not make progress in reducing poverty without expanding the tent and the conversation. A demand for jobs and job training programs solely for black folks would plunge us into a tortured narrative, fraught with the weight of an ugly history. From the beginning of the civil rights movement, Dr. King had brought a preacher’s understanding of our common humanity, and a Christian concern for the poor to his advocacy. But his implicit preference for multiracial coalition became explicit in the Poor People’s Campaign. The black and Chicano civil rights movements were parallel, and mutually reinforcing but not necessarily joined. Latinos participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and many blacks supported Cesar Chavez’s campaign for farm workers. My own first brush with coalition politics was in a grocery store: As a child my parents would not let me eat any grapes that did not have the union label. In championing nonviolence as the means to dismantling Jim Crow, Dr. King had always reminded his audience of his ultimate vision for America. “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption,” he said, and “the creation of the beloved community.” To “make it possible for men to live together as brothers in community, and not to continually live with bitterness and friction.”
This is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement.
Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, is the author of The Agitator's Daughter and The Failures of Integration, the latter an Editors' Choice book in the New York Times Book Review. Cashin has published widely in academic journals and print media, including in the Los Angeles Times,Washington Post, and Education Week. A frequent commentator on law and race relations, she has appeared on National Public Radio, CNN, ABC News, BET, and numerous other outlets. Her latest book is Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, coming soon from Beacon Press.