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Fifty years after Poor People's Campaign, America's once-poorest town still struggles

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.
by Erik Ortiz /  / Updated 
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
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MARKS, Miss. — 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.

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.

For its 50th anniversary, anti-poverty activists across the country, led by the Revs. William Barber of North Carolina and Liz Theoharis of New York, have tried to revive the Poor People's Campaign by demonstrating for the past six weeks for a higher minimum wage and the end of gerrymandering; some have been arrested for blocking traffic at protests. The campaign culminated in a rally Saturday at the National Mall.

Community and political leaders in Marks and Quitman County hosted their own event in May to commemorate the campaign. King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, a human rights advocate in his own right, attended.

But Benson-Wilson worries that the people of Marks haven't earned the recognition for what they inspired in 1968, and that King's call for economic justice may still go unrealized.

"It's like a gift that he gave us," she says, "and we've been sitting on this gift."

The sanctuary at the Valley Queen Baptist Church in Marks. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church in 1968. Andrea Morales / NBC News

The legacy of Jim Crow

Marks' mayor, Joe Shegog Jr., was 16 when the Mule Train departed for Washington. His parents wanted to participate, but, as sharecroppers working and living on land owned by whites, they couldn't risk losing their jobs and their home.

One day this month, after sweeping the dust from the sidewalk in front of the small brick building that serves as City Hall, Shegog took stock of what his town lacks: The only hospital closed two years ago after too many people had used the emergency room like a doctor's office and couldn't afford to pay their bills. The town's only full-service grocery store, a SuperValu, also closed two years ago.

Jobs evaporated when the county's several factories — which produced cotton, soybeans, car parts, rubber and shirts — began closing in the 1980s and '90s as work was consolidated or moved overseas; locals say this was exacerbated by the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by President Bill Clinton.

There's also no public busing and no sources of entertainment — the movie theater shut down in the 1960s and the public pool was filled with cement by whites after desegregation.

Grass grows in the cracks of the old SuperValu supermarket in Marks, Mississippi. Andrea Morales / NBC News

What the town does have is Shegog, the first black resident to win a seat on the City Council in 1987 and who became mayor in 2009.

He could have left after graduating from high school in 1971, like his classmates who moved 80 miles north to Memphis, or to Chicago and other big cities. But this small kingdom of cotton was home, the place that birthed the blues and where lush fields of soybean plants stretch in long, uniform rows like strings on the neck of a guitar.

"You got a lot of hardworking people here," Shegog says. "Proud people who make this home."

More than 50 years ago, under Jim Crow, Marks was riven by racism and railroad tracks. The whites lived on one side, where stately homes once owned by wealthy plantation owners still stand, and blacks lived meagerly on the other. While Marks and its leaders are now majority black, Shegog says it is the whites who used to run the town who failed Marks: They had no interest in improving the black neighborhoods, an area still marred by dozens of blighted properties and peeling shotgun houses. And there was no foresight to diversify Marks' economy, as most farm work became mechanized in the early 1960s.

Today the town has a McDonald's, a Family Dollar and a Dollar General — retail pillars of a low-wage landscape.

With many white residents having fled, "blacks today have the political power, but were left with no economic power," Shegog says. "And if you have a job, it's not a living wage."

What would turn the town's fortunes around? More jobs, the mayor says. But from where? When Donald Trump tweeted before the 2016 presidential election that "so many in the African-American community are doing so badly, poverty and crime way up, employment and jobs way down: I will fix it, promise," that pledge didn't register in Quitman County, where Hillary Clinton won easily.

"He's not talking about this place," says Shegog, whose attention has more recently turned to an opioid epidemic making inroads in Quitman.

Some of the remaining white residents of Marks say they're not shielded from the hardships. A "For Sale" sign hangs in the window of the Pizza Pro, one of a handful of businesses in Marks' sparse downtown. Owner Paula Walters, 67, says she wants to retire, but there have been no takers.

"I'm going to get rich when I'm in heaven," Walters, a proud Baptist, says as she waits for the garlic knots to brown. "The streets are going to be gold."

Other residents are looking for their payday now.

Green, the grandmother with the living room-store whom kids call the Candy Lady, owes thousands on a home loan she took to fix up the house her mother left her when she died in 2004. She brings in some extra cash with the shop she runs out of her home, but after paying for the food and the gas to drive to the grocery store, she barely makes a dent in the debt.

Asked how much she has in savings, she says zero. Green lived in Dallas before returning to Marks to take care of her mother and aunt, and back then was working customer service jobs to pay her bills. But finding something like that in the Delta "is like pulling hen's teeth," she says.

"Just trying to survive, 'cause thriving don't seem to be an option," Green says. "But surviving — I'mma do that one way or another."

A search for solutions in Marks

The extreme poverty of many residents in Marks is not unique to this slice of the Delta or even the Deep South. It can be found in South Texas along the Mexico border, in the Navajo Nation in the West and the heart of Appalachia in eastern Kentucky — communities with relatively small populations, but where generations have resisted the pull of big cities in favor of open land.

"You should care because these are Americans. They deserve all the rights and privileges that go with being an American citizen," says Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., whose district includes Marks. "If they choose to live in an area like Marks, there should be givens: running water, access to sewage, roads, just like other areas. Just because there are not as many people doesn't mean that you can't provide that kind of investment. You got to have a decent quality of life."

Friends play dominoes at a car repair shop in Marks.Andrea Morales / for NBC News

That means the government needs to support these small towns socially and economically, Thompson says. "These communities historically don't have the resources to make all these changes happen themselves."

About half of Marks' residents are dependent on assistance from the federal government, officials say, whether it's Medicaid, food stamps or disability benefits. Many school children rely on free or reduced lunches.

But some families saw their welfare payments cut completely after nationwide changes to aid were made in 1996 under Clinton — a move meant to prod people to find work. Mississippi's welfare program gives $170 a month to a family of three, a figure that hasn't increased since 2000. It's also difficult to enroll — the state has one of the lowest user rates nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.

Thompson, elected to the House in 1993, would like to see the federal government invest in poor rural communities as the Works Progress Administration did during the Great Depression, putting 8.5 million Americans to work by building schools, roads and other infrastructure. In Marks, the program helped to construct what would become the high school for black students.

But the only recent investment in town has been the modest Amtrak station where a commuter train connecting Chicago with New Orleans stops twice a day. A $500,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration helped to build it.

Benson-Wilson anticipates a small number of jobs can eventually be produced with the creation of a ground shuttle service that connects the station to other points in the Delta.

Town officials want to draw more people to Marks, including for the Mules & Blues Fest, an annual concert that began three years ago and is supported by a state tourism grant and sponsorships.

Leaders have also begun putting historical markers around town to document the Poor People's Campaign and believe that Marks, given its ties to the civil rights movement, can be a draw for tourism in the same way the nearby city of Clarksdale has capitalized on its legacy of blues artists and juke joints.

A mural of the Mule Train at Alice's Soul Food.Andrea Morales / NBC News

With dim prospects for a surge in development and jobs, tourism could be one economic driver, says Hilliard Lackey, a historian and professor at Jackson State University who has studied Marks.

He recently met with local entrepreneurs to explain the benefits of starting a cottage industry, such as making souvenir plates related to King and the Mule Train.

Grass-roots organizations and charities are also making investments in Marks.

The Reclaimed Project, a Christian ministry and nonprofit based in Marks that started by assisting orphans and the impoverished in Africa, is renovating an 8,000-square-foot building downtown for a community space. The group has also worked with the Quitman County School District, which has improved its performance rating from an F to a D, to provide a pipeline of much-needed teachers to Marks and better test scores.

In addition, the Marks Project, a nonprofit rural development group that formed in 2016, has built a playground in town and helped raise money for youth football uniforms, and is hoping to launch vocational training programs with local universities.

Earlier this year, the group teamed up with the University of Mississippi to host a fair for high school students to learn about the types of careers they can pursue through college as well as how to make healthier food options. But even their access to fresh produce is a problem with no solution on the horizon.

"This is one of the most fertile regions in the world," says Mitch Campbell, a co-founder of the Marks Project. "Yet we're in a food desert."

Growing the future

When the SuperValu closed, Ora Phipps, who raised 10 children in Marks, had a safety net: her backyard.

She grows cabbage, corn, snap beans and okra, and neighbors — anyone really — can take from her garden, no questions asked.

Phipps, 89, who is black, relies on about $300 a month from Social Security. She also gets help from her daughter, Machell Carter, who is a registered nurse at Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Ora Phipps' husband, Armstead, died during a freedom walk in 1966 and he was eulogized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.Andrea Morales / NBC News

Carter, in gray scrubs after an overnight shift, is the breadwinner, with a job that pays upward of $70,000 a year — pushing her far above the state's median household income of $40,600, the lowest in the nation. After high school, she left Marks and followed a sister to Norfolk, Virginia, thinking, "I'm going to try something else."

She did, and became a nurse. She returned to her rural Mississippi home in 2011, and felt like she landed in a time warp. The fundamentals of the modern day are here, and they aren't: Most people have cars and cellphones, but there's no food delivery, no Uber. "Uber, you need a credit card, and poor people don't have credit cards," Carter says.

Carter spends her free time checking on her mother, who has diabetes and hypertension and no longer drives.

"She's feisty," Carter says of Phipps as she putters in the garden.

Phipps, who helped to create Marks' first Head Start program, which at the time received no federal assistance and was all-volunteer, vividly remembers the "filthy time" of segregation and how the town was on edge with the arrival of King. When he spoke at a church in Marks, he remembered her husband, Armstead Phipps, who died of a heart attack during a freedom march in 1966.

An overgrown house on First Street. Andrea Morales / for NBC News

But what of Marks today? Phipps counts her blessings: She has a house that's all hers, running water and her green garden.

Not everyone is that lucky. Down the street, three generations of one family live together in a ramshackle home with mold contaminating the walls.

"That perpetual poverty situation, it ain't going anywhere," Carter says.

Phipps has a plan of her own, though. The lot next door is vacant after a home burned down. A truckload of dirt she ordered arrives later that afternoon, and she points to the untended earth where she will plant an even larger bounty of vegetables.

Where things can grow, she says, there is always a future.

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