ADAPTED FROM RFK: HIS WORDS FOR OUR TIMES
On April 10, 1967, Robert Kennedy attended Labor Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty hearings in Mississippi, following up on Capitol Hill hearings held that March. In Washington, Kennedy was galvanized by testimony from Marian Wright, a twenty-seven-year-old southern native and Yale Law School graduate, who staffed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Mississippi office. She was one of only five black lawyers (and one of two black law school graduates) in the state, and the only one with a full-time specialty in civil rights. Edelman set the context for the Mississippi hearings: “After two civil rights bills and the third year of the poverty bill, the . . . Negro in Mississippi is poorer than he was, he has less housing, he is badly educated; he is almost in despair.”
On April 11, Kennedy told Charles Evers (brother of the slain Medgar and a key contributor to Kennedy’s black support in the 1964 Senate campaign), “I want to see it.” Led by local civil rights leader Amzie Moore, the small group began in Cleveland, Mississippi, and ventured deep into the Delta, into (in Evers’s words) “one of the worst places [I have] ever seen.” They went from shack to shack, listening to men long out of work, without skills or prospects, and parents trying to keep their babies alive on rice, biscuits, and gravy left over from old surplus handouts. Kennedy told traveling companion and key Senate aide Peter Edelman that although he had witnessed serious deprivation in West Virginia, he was viewing the most horrendous conditions he had seen in the United States, equal to the worst squalor he had seen in the Third World.
Evers remembered one shack with
no ceiling hardly The floor had holes in it, and a bed black as my arm, propped up with some kind of bricks to keep it from falling The odor was so bad you could hardly keep the nausea down
This lady came out with hardly any clothes on, and we told her who [Kennedy] was She just put her arms out and said “Thank God” and then she just held his hand.
Des Moines Register writer Nick Kotz, accompanying the group, watched Kennedy, who had seen “a child sitting on the floor of a tiny back room. Barely two years old, wearing only a filthy undershirt, she sat rubbing several grains of rice round and round on the floor. The senator knelt beside her.
“Hello… Hi… Hi, baby… ” he murmured, touching her cheeks and her hair as he would his own child’s As he sat on the dirty floor, he placed his hand gently on the child’s swollen stomach
But the little girl sat as if in a trance…. For five minutes he tried: talking, caressing, tickling, poking—demanding that the child respond. The baby never looked up.
Evers remembered that “tears were running down [Kennedy’s] cheeks, and he just sat there and held the little child. Roaches and rats were all over the floor . . . ‘How can a country like this allow it?’ [Kennedy asked him]. ‘Maybe they just don’t know.’”
As Marian Wright Edelman has written in her essay in the opening of our book, “From this trip and throughout the fifteen months I knew him, until his assassination, I came to associate Robert Kennedy with nonverbal, empathetic communications that conveyed far more than words. He looked straight at you and he saw you—and he saw suffering children. And his capacity for genuine outrage and compassion was palpable. He kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children and his pushing, passion, and visibility helped set in motion a chain of events that led to major reforms.”
For much of the 51 years since Senator Kennedy experienced Delta poverty directly, America extended a safety net for the nation’s poor, but in recent years, the number of poor – especially poor children – has steadily grown. Indeed, the US has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world: 25%. Overall, roughly 43 million of our fellow citizens are living below the poverty line. (Coverage of a recent UN report is here.)
And two recent trends suggest that the situation will worsen. First, the Trump administration is encouraging states to add work and other requirements to their welfare programs, despite substantial evidence that such steps lead hunger and extreme poverty to rise. Second, the enormous federal deficit increases projected to result from the 2017 tax cut are cited by Republicans in arguing to gut safety net programs.
The national rise in child poverty, and stories of effective efforts in a number of states to protect kids, are detailed in this article from Billy Shore, co-founder of Share Our Strength.
A year after his trip to Mississippi, on the Presidential campaign trail, Robert Kennedy repeatedly reminded his listeners in every part of the country of the plight of these forgotten Americans:
I have seen children in Mississippi—here in the United States, with a gross national product of eight hundred billion dollars—I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so that we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their lives are not destroyed. I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.
Our Gross National Product now is nearly $20 billion, but for years we have lost Kennedy’s outrage about so many people living in our midst who cannot feed or house themselves or their children. We can’t Make America Great if we abandon one-quarter of our children to poverty.
(Photo by James Lucas, JFK Library)