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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Mule Train - A Different Kind of Stubborn

We should all be familiar with this sign, right?  You generally see it as you zoom down the entrance ramp of any expressway in Georgia or along the roadway at certain spots.

This particular law was tested in June, 1968 when a group of protesters traveling to Washington D.C. had a showdown with Governor Lester Maddox, the media, and the Georgia State Patrol because the protesters wanted to travel down Interstate 20 using mule drawn wagons.

The entire standoff unfolded right here in Douglasville.
First a little background……

In 1962, sociologist Michael Harrington released his book titled The Other America which quoted data estimating twenty-five percent of all Americans lived below the poverty threshold. Many historians cite Harrington’s work as the inspiration for President Lyndon B. Johnston’s “War on Poverty” begun in 1964.  Unfortunately, you can’t wage a war domestically while fighting a war overseas….the Vietnam War.  The “War on Poverty” soon stalled.

Fast forward a bit to 1967.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had finished a book tour and with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he realized he needed to attack the next set of issues not just for black Americans, but for ALL Americans regarding better jobs, higher wages, decent housing and educational opportunities.
Dr. King also began to speak out against the Vietnam War for the first time. In his remarks at Riverside Church in April, 1967 he stated Americans should not be fighting a war on foreign soil when there was a war to wage here at home.

Gee, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Marks, Mississippi became ground zero for the face of poverty in the late 60s. Quitman County, where Marks was located was the poorest county in the United States per the U.S. Census. Robert F. Kennedy visited Marks and later urged Dr. King to visit, which he did in March, 1965 along with other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

You can read an account of his visit to Marks here.
What resulted from Dr. King’s visit was The Poor People’sCampaign…..a mass demonstration to draw national attention to the realities of impoverished Americans. The event was primarily planned by Dr. Martin Luther King and the SCLC prior to King’s assassination. The hope was that the campaign would help to gain national support for a proposed $10 billion poverty package.

Dr. King realized the Poor People’s Campaign would have to be a mass movement that would disrupt the workings of government to get the attention of the American people.  There would be several caravans of folks converging on Washington D.C. to set up a camp along the Mall known as Resurrection City.  The culmination of the campaign would be the Mule Train which would set out from Marks, Mississippi on May 13, 1968. Plans called for the Mule Train to reach Resurrection City on June 19th. The date held significance since June 19th is remembered as Juneteenth…..the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached many slaves in the Deep South.
As you can see by my source list at the end of this post I found plenty of news stories from across the nation reporting on the Mule Train where Douglasville was mentioned over and over, and while they were helpful, I think we really need to focus on our own paper and how the Douglas Sentinel reported the story.   I located the issue for June 20, 1968, and on the front page…below the fold,  was a story titled “Train Halted by Georgia Patrol” written by Tommy Toles, the editor of the paper at that time.

I present the text of the article here in italics with my comments and explanations in regular type.
The mule train arrived in Douglasville late last Friday afternoon via Highway 78 west. It continued through the city and north on Highway 92 to R.L. Cousins School, where it stopped to camp overnight on the playground in front of the school.

The wagons were described as “raggedy” with “makeshift white covers.” Raggedy would be a correct description since they had been on the road for over 30 days. Slogans were written on the covers proclaiming “Jesus was a marcher”, “Stop the war”, “Feed the people”, and “I can see a new day.”
When the wagons reached the Georgia state line they were met by the Georgia State Patrol who served as an escort. Captain J.H. Cofer with GSP advised the patrol would help the wagon train in any way possible, providing safety and escort.

If you research the history of John W. Stewart MiddleSchool in Douglasville, you soon discover a school has been on that property since 1957. From 1957 to 1972 R.L. Cousins was one of two black schools that existed in Douglasville prior to integration.
As the “poor people” watered and fed their mules, curious Douglas County residents drove by the location while others lined the banks surrounding the playground. Several persons took photographs of the marchers as cameramen from at least one national network took background footage for a documentary being compiled for showing later this summer.
 
The picture below is how the playground at the old R.L. Cousins site looks today.

 
Douglasville police officers and Georgia State Patrol officers kept a close watch on the train throughout the afternoon and night. However, no incidents were reported.

Tension was high during the Spring and Summer months of 1968. Dr. King was assassinated in April, and though they were broken and in mourning the leaders of the SCLC decided to push forward with the Poor People's March. Hundreds of riots broke out across the nation including places such as Chicago and Washington D.C.  After the Mule Train had left Marks, Mississippi Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5th.  

By the time the Mule Train reached Douglasville everyone knew that Resurrection City was basically falling apart due to days and days of rain that left the Mall a muddy mess and the message the movement's leaders were wanting to convey had become as muddled as the ground the campers were trying to inhabit.
State Patrol officers discussed the route to Atlanta with march leaders that afternoon and told them that they would escort them on any highway to Atlanta except Interstate 20 because Georgia law prohibits operation of non-motorized vehicles on interstate highways.

Following their arrest, several marchers said they were under the impression that they were going to follow Highway 78 into Atlanta and couldn’t understand why the route had been changed to Interstate 20.
Willie Bolden, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference official in charge of the mule train said Friday afternoon that he made the decision to use Interstate 20 instead of the other highways leading to Atlanta. He claimed the marchers had used interstate highways in Mississippi and Alabama without incident and that Interstate 20 would save train several hours of travel.

It could not immediately be determined whether the other two states have laws prohibiting travel on interstate highways, as does Georgia.
The picture below shows Willie Bolden (in the middle).

 
After a few hours rest, the marchers and mule train started south on Highway 92. Upon arriving at the Interstate 20 entrance ramp at 7:45 a.m. Friday, the poor people were again told by State Patrolmen that it would be a state offense to drive non-motorized vehicles on the expressway, where the slow moving train might endanger the lives of motorists and the marchers.

Other media relates….”the lead driver started his wagon, and the others fell in behind him with most of the marchers walking alongside. Police formed a human wall across the highway and told the marchers they were under arrest. The marchers fell to their knees alongside the route praying and singing while they waited to be led off in groups of five to six….”
Several “poor people” including a white youth, stayed behind and were not arrested. They remained to watch the mules and wagons.

The state patrol carried the arrested marchers back to Douglasville where they were placed in the National Guard Armory. Only 67 adults on the train were charged with violating state law. It was difficult to determine exactly how many marchers were traveling with the mule train, but a member of the Georgia State Patrol said the marchers told him the entourage included 100 adults including youths 15 and 16 years of age, 30 small children and one baby.

My research indicates the oldest marcher was 88 years old while the baby was six months.
The son of the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, president of the SCLC and two sons of Hosea Williams, another SCLC official, were included in the train, marchers said.

In his autobiography, Ralph David Abernathy advised the news media told him his family had been detained in Georgia by authorities.  He said, “Maddox was playing to his constituency when he issued such a ridiculous order…. As usual, such outrageous behavior on the part of the white establishment just gave us additional publicity…..”
Bolden remained behind when the mule train started down the interstate entrance ramp and was not arrested, however, Andrew Marrisett, Bolden’s assistant, said it had been agreed that Bolden would not be arrested because “one of us needed to stay out of jail.”

Douglas County Sheriff Claude Abercrombie told the marchers several times that charges would be dropped if they would agree to travel to Atlanta by any other route than Interstate 20.


Governor Maddox repeatedly advised his reason for the arrest was “to protect their own safety and welfare, as the safety of motorists. He also offered to provide flatbed trucks to pick up the mules and wagons and transport them to Atlanta.”
Marisett said that he had to receive instructions from his superiors before authorizing any action.

While in the armory, the marchers sat on blankets and quilts on the concrete floor, some singing and praying while others played cards at a table in the rear of the building.
The picture below shows some of the detained marchers in the armory.

 
Near noon, Sheriff Abercrombie made arrangements to feed the marchers at the armory.  A local restaurant operator prepared food for the “poor people.”

Many state patrolmen, Douglasville policemen and Sheriff’s deputies had gone without sleep for 16, 24, 36, and 48 hours because of the march and must not have eaten for one to two days.
At one time, some 16 patrol cars were counted at the armory.

“Why didn’t they just decide on a route instead of trying to break the law and causing all this trouble?” one tired looking patrolmen asked.

During the morning hours, Marrisett held a press conference inside the armory kitchen. News media representatives from several weekly and daily newspapers were on the scene, as well as television cameramen.

Marrisett answered routine questions with ease and repeated the philosophy advanced by the late Dr. Martin Luther King that man had a moral obligation to disobey laws he feels are “unjust.”
However, Marisett floundered for a moment when a reporter asked whether such philosophy would lead to anarchy. He cited “civil disobedience” used to connect with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the public housing regulation passed by Congress as proof the philosophy can be used without anarchy. But, Marrisett did not recall the recent riots in America’s largest cities.

 
Asked whether a person could disobey the law against assault and strike him (Marrisett) because the person felt the law was “unjust”, the mule train assistant leader said the question was not involved with the current issue. Pressed for an answer, he finally answered, “If you want to hit me, go ahead. I won’t strike you back.”

He added that persons have a right to disobey what they claim are “unjust” laws if they are willing to “pay the cost.”
Marisett was then asked whether the marchers – who were resting  and being fed after several days on the highways – were “paying the costs” or whether the weary State Patrol, Douglasville Police department, Douglas County Sheriff’s  office, Douglas County citizens and Georgia taxpayers were “paying the costs.”
He continued to claim that the mule train participants were “paying the costs.”

The mule train continued to get into deeper hot water as the afternoon proceeded. Dr. William C. Driggers and Bill Newman of the Atlanta Humane Society inspected the mules – which had been tied to the right-of-way fence at the Interstate-20 entrance ramp and pointed out that many had open sores. All the mules were almost exhausted and needed food and water before proceeding further they said. Mr. Newman said it would be difficult for some of the mules to make it to Atlanta much less Washington D.C.
However, Bolden dismissed the comments by saying, “They seem more concerned about the mules than the folks.”

The Humane Society offered to buy five of the mules, but the marchers refused.
It was finally agreed that the mule train would be allowed to use the interstate beginning at 3:45 a.m., but they had to be at their destination by 7:00 a.m.  Sheriff Claude Abercrombie stated all charges would be dropped.

After the announcement was made Sheriff Abercrombie ordered county school buses to carry the marchers back to the R.L. Cousins school ground, where the wagons and mules were waiting.
The train had been moved back to the school grounds earlier in the afternoon to be fed and given water.

 
….As the marchers boarded the school buses to be carried to the school, Bolden made a statement, saying in part:

“It is fitting that the poor people’s mule train was momentarily halted in Douglas County.”
“Douglas County is a very poor, poor county. There is little economic opportunity in the county for the people. Bolden said many Douglas Countians “have to leave” the county to work in the Atlanta area.

As a closing note Bolden invited the poor people of Douglas County to join the march. It could not be determined if his offer was accepted.
The Mule Train along with their GSP escorts left Douglasville at 3:45 a.m. traveling along Interstate 20.
Other news reports indicated the mule train segment of the Poor People’s March completed the final over the road portion of its journey wearily struggling off Interstate 20 at Atlanta, 75 minutes past the deadline set by Governor Lester Maddox.

The battered condition of the mules was one of the reasons it took nearly six hours to cover the 25 miles from Douglasvillle to Atlanta.
In an issue of Washington Afro-American Willie Bolden is quoted as saying, “We proved our point. We’ve traveled 600 miles. The people who previously didn’t believe there were poor folks in this country have had a chance to see them. We won a victory today….We told the state troopers and Lester Maddox before they put us in jail we were going to Atlanta and we were using our mule train….We gave him our proposal and we told  him to accept it or get a larger national guard.”….

As the train arrived in Atlanta…”the clip-clop of the mules’ hooves echoed off the buildings. The streets as is normal on a Saturday morning, were nearly deserted. A few persons came out of their homes and apartments to wave and two women riders aboard the train lifted their voice in song.”
The Mule Train made its way to Hunter Street Baptist Church where the marchers spent a couple of days before heading to Washington D.C., but the “train” would be transported the rest of the way to Resurrection City by train and truck. 

Most Civil Rights scholars and historians judge the Poor People’s Campaign to be a failure.
By June 21, 1968 riot police cleaned out Resurrection City, and the campaign just dissolved away..

No actual legislation was born out of the Campaign, but the Department of Agriculture did increase the Food Stamp Program by $20 million and increased the amount of surplus food.
A week later the Douglas County Sentinel posted an editorial with some final thoughts about the whole matter…..you can see it here.

Sources:
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down….Ralph David Abernathy

Rome News-Tribune….June 14, 1968  “70 Members of Mule Train Arrested at Douglasville”
The Pittsburgh Press…..June 14, 1968   “Maddox Cracks Whip on Mule Train March

The Evening Independent….June 15, 1968   “Mule Train Rolls into Atlanta”
The Pittsburgh Press…June 16, 1968   “Mule Train Marchers”

Washington Afro-American    June 18, 1968
Douglas County Sentinel…June 20, 1968  “Train Halted by State Patrol"

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