Mobilizing Communities

Riding the Freedom Train

From the Collection, © Ernest C. Withers, Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust

Following Dr. King's memorial services on May 2, 1968, Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy launched the Freedom Train from Memphis, Tennessee, the first caravan of the Poor People’s Campaign. Participants marched three miles before 300 people boarded buses bound for Marks, Mississippi.

The Freedom Train included the movement’s iconic mules and wagons to symbolize the injustices of tenant farming, sharecropping, and the plantation economy. During segregation, traveling could be dangerous for African Americans who had few public accommodations to service them. African American entrepreneur Arthur George Gaston built the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, to house people of color. It was considered headquarters for the Civil Rights Movement.

Photograph, a mule drawn covered wagon proceeding down a street in front of the Gaston Motel.

A mule drawn covered wagon proceeding down a street in front of the Gaston Motel.

From the Collection, Gift of Roland L. Freeman © Roland L. Freeman

Caravans ranged from 80 to 1,000 travelers. To ease fatigue and boost morale, caravan leaders and marshals planned traveling games, music, rest stops, and rallies along the way. To respond to emergencies, caravan leaders kept list with the names, addresses, and emergency contacts for passengers. They also carried a list of doctors, lawyers, medical centers, and local organizers along the route.

Photographer Roland L. Freeman reflects on his time riding the Mule Train to Washington, D.C.

From the Collection
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We come from the ghettos of the cities and the plantations of the South, from Spanish-speaking communities of this nation, from Indian communities, from the hidden poverty in the hollows of Appalachia, from the hot fields of Florida, Texas and California. We challenge the nation to recognize our right to a decent life.