In 1967, Robert Kennedy knelt in a crumbling shack in Mississippi, watching a toddler pick rice and beans off a dirt floor. It had been three years since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty. What Kennedy saw on that trip would, in part, drive his run for the presidency one year later.
In this special WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to longtime journalist and University of Mississippi professor Ellen Meacham about the profound impact that Kennedy’s 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta had on his renewed commitment to social justice in the last 14 months of his life.
While Vietnam was the most contentious issue of the day, poverty and its nexus with the civil rights movement were very much on Kennedy’s mind. RFK went to the Delta as part of a Senate fact-finding group. Some key players in the civil rights movement also took part.
According to Meacham, Kennedy had long felt that the poverty programs of the day were inadequately funded and failed to address real needs. What he discovered in Mississippi was not just the kind of poverty he had already seen in Harlem, the Bronx, and Bedford Stuyvesant. This was abject hunger, particularly in children.
What frustrated him the most was how so many local officials, including Mississippi's two US senators, refused to acknowledge how bad things were.
Meacham also reminds us how Kennedy saw so many of the nation’s resources, which might have been deployed to fight poverty, going instead to the war in Vietnam.
The experience brought him closer to Dr. Martin Luther King, who saw his own efforts for social justice and workers’ rights as the logical extension of the civil rights movement.
As King said, and Kennedy came to acknowledge: it does a man no good to be able to sit at a lunch counter if he cannot afford to eat.
Ellen B. Meacham is the author of Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi, April 2, 2018).