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


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.

How household incomes compare

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.”

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