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NCRM hosts traveling Poor People’s Campaign exhibit

Published: May. 12, 2022 at 3:00 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s been 54 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said the poverty he saw in the Mid-South made him weep, and spurred a call to action.

On May 13, 1968 the Poor People’s Campaign kicked off in Marks, Mississippi to bring awareness to the poverty faced by many Americans.

King’s Poor People’s Campaign was organized after he visited Quitman County, Mississippi, at the time, it was the poorest county in the United States. King’s campaign is still alive today, and a new exhibition is coming to Memphis to tell its story.

This weekend the National Civil Rights Museum will open the Smithsonian traveling exhibit Solidarity Now! 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign was one of the final pieces Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy which was in the process of being organized in the final months of his life.

About 60 miles south of the National Civil Rights Museum exhibit is where it all started, in Quitman County, Mississippi. Dr. King visited in 1968 and said he couldn’t help but weep from seeing the poverty.

“I feel like what he witnessed on Cotton Street [in Marks, MS], when he actually wept, and saw those conditions, it just touched him to do something about poverty,” Quitman County Economic and Tourism Director Velma Wilson said.

That something was the Poor People’s Campaign.

Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started planning the campaign that year. Part of the demonstration was a mule train to start in Marks in Quitman County and end in Washington D.C. to bring the nation’s attention to poverty in America.

Dr. King never made it to that campaign. He was assassinated a month before the mule train, which still took off to fulfill the campaign on May 13, 1968.

“What Dr. King did here was amazing to select this poor Delta county. He planted some seeds of hope,” Wilson said.

Some of those seeds are now blooming according to Wilson.

The Marks native came back to town in 2016 as a consultant to work to get a permanent Amtrak stop in Marks which happened in 2018. In that time, Wilson said the history of the mule train in Marks has been unearthed attracting those wanting to learn more.

“We’re looking at tourism as one of those seeds of hope that we can build upon,” Wilson said.

Once the poorest county in the nation, Quitman County has still seen its share of problems.

Major industries have left the county. According to Wilson, 60 percent of working age people work outside the county. A hospital and grocery store closed there for several years, but both services have reopened in in Quitman County over the last year and a half.

Wilson believes there are signs of optimism 54 years after Dr. King’s shed his tears.

“We’ll have to build on the legacy he left here for us,” Wilson said.

The National Civil Rights Museum will open the Solidarity Now! 1968 Poor People’s Campaign on Saturday May 14. The exhibit features photographs, demonstration signs and oral histories among other things.

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