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The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered
January 17 through March 26, 2001
The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is proud to present The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered. This remarkable exhibition commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign, will open on January 17, and run through March 26, 2001. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced the Poor People's Campaign in December, 1967, just a few months before his assassination. As part of this campaign, thousands of African Americans traveled from across the U.S. to Washington, to petition the government for what King called an " economic bill of rights." The most symbolic of the groups to make the journey to the capital came from Marks, Mississippi. Rather than traveling by bus or car, these people came in mule-drawn wagons. The Mule Train documents this slow but significant procession in a series of twenty-four photographic panels and murals assembled by Roland L. Freeman, who participated in the march from its inception, and who worked to organize this exhibition to mark the anniversary of the campaign.
"The work begun when the Mule Train set off on May 13, 1968 is still unfinished 30 years later," writes Roland Freeman in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue. "For our own sakes, we must celebrate the legacy of the Mule Train; and to encourage the best in ourselves, we must honor what was done by its participants."
Planning for the Poor People's Campaign began in early 1968. It was to be the largest and most wide-ranging civil disobedience campaign ever run by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was conceived in part by Marian Wright, a lawyer with strong ties to the Mississippi civil rights movement. The campaign sought to unite Americans of all ethnicities, including poor Hispanic, Native American, white, Asian, and African American communities, in a movement that would transcend race while seeking social and economic justice by non-violent means. Despite King's assassination on April 4, plans for the campaign went ahead, led by Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. On Monday, May 13, the Mule Train set off from Marks, Mississippi, on route to Atlanta. For the first part of its journey around 115 people traveled with the Mule Train in fifteen to twenty wagons. Participants ranged in age from 8 months to over 70 years, and throughout the journey to Washington new people joined the caravan as others dropped out.
From the outset the Mule Train was beset by problems associated with the mules and wagons themselves, including a lack of skilled blacksmiths and wagoneers, few tools, and uncooperative mules. In addition, poor weather and threats of confrontation with hostile whites and legal authorities hampered the caravan's progress. After leaving Marks, the train traveled east across northern Mississippi and Alabama and then into Georgia—a distance of around five hundred miles that took a little over one month to complete. In Atlanta the entire caravan, including wagons and mules, was loaded onto a train to Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. Upon arrival, the Mule Train was reassembled, and on June 19 crossed the Potomac River and entered the capital to join thousands who had already arrived to protest civil rights.
As a young photographer, Roland Freeman joined the Mule Train to document its historic journey. Freeman began his career in the 1960s photographing the Civil Rights Movement. Assignments since then have emphasized photojournalism and photodocumentation. A major emphasis of Freeman's work is his ongoing self-assigned project, While There Is Still Time, a study of black culture throughout the African Diaspora that uses the camera as a tool to research, document, and interpret the continuity of traditional African-American folklife practices. His books include Something To Keep You Warm: The Roland Freeman Collection of Black American Quilts from the Mississippi Heartland; Southern Roads/City Pavements: Photographs of Black Americans; Margaret Walker's "For My People": A Tribute; and A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. Each publication has been accompanied by a touring exhibition. Among Freeman's honors, in 1970 he was awarded a Young Humanist Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He will be Artist in Residence at the UC Berkeley Art Museum the week of February 5 as part of The Time of Your Life, a project generously funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Lecture: 'Roland L. Freeman and the Photodocumentary Process: An African-American Photographer Looks at His Culture and Community'
Thursday, February 8, 7 p.m.
Roland Freeman will present a slide-illustrated lecture in which he discusses his experience documenting the historic Mule Train.
The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered, photographs by Roland l. Freeman, edited by David B. Levine is available in the Museum Store ($14.95 paperback). To order, call (510) 642-1475.