With RFK In The Delta

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In 1967 I was working as a reporter for the Delta Democrat-Times , in Greenville, Mississippi, covering civil rights, the courts, and municipal affairs. On April 9 Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from New York, and the other members of the Senate Labor Subcommittee investigating poverty and hunger in America flew to Jackson, the capital. That night Kennedy and his staff (including Peter Edelman and Marian Wright, who later married) met with Mississippi’s liberal Democratic faithful at a dinner. Among the guests were Charles Evers, the brother of the murdered Medgar Evers, and my boss, Hodding Carter III, the editor and associate publisher of the Democrat-Times .

Hodding’s father had been persuaded to come to Greenville in the 1930s by members of the local power structure who wanted to bring in new business and knew a decent newspaper was the key; they had hired him after his editorial crusade against Huey Long in Louisiana had ended when Long was assassinated. By the time I reported to the paper, in the fall of 1966, Big Hod, as we called him, had made Greenville unique in Mississippi in both tone and treasury, and his son had taken over as editor and associate publisher of the paper. Greenville was the only Mississippi city supporting a liberal daily, even if it was tiny.

All of us on the DDT staff knew that Kennedy had arrived in the state, and we were sorry we were’t covering the hearings in Jackson, but we simply didn’t have the manpower. There were just four of us noncolumnists and nonsports types who gathered at 8:00 A.M. each day to put out the news sections of the DDT , and we four also had to galley- and page-proof the whole paper. We were very interested in Robert Kennedy, of course. But we knew nothing of his plans to come to Greenville.

On April 10 the Senate Select Subcommittee on Poverty, chaired by “Fighting Joe” Clark (D-Pa), opened its hearings. That afternoon, Kennedy decided he wanted to see how bad things really were in the Delta, and he asked Wright to find a pocket of poverty that the entire subcommittee could visit the next day.

He may not have realized that finding pockets of poverty in the Mississippi Delta in the late spring of 1967 was as easy as finding pockets in a pool hall. I often saw what I guessed was kwashiorkor, a nutritional deficiency disease massively incident in Africa. Black tenant farmers—sharecroppers—had finally been completely marginalized when wage legislation enacted early in 1967 priced sharecropping into oblivion a century after it had replaced slavery. The law guaranteed the workers a dollar an hour; their bosses preferred to do without this expense whenever they could. And so that spring, poverty and hunger in the Delta were worse than at any time in a hundred years.

Late on April 10 the senators and their aides caravanned to Greenville, planning to descend on a place in Bolivar County, north of Greenville, the following day. On the morning of April 11, Hodding III came breezing into the newsroom and said to me, “There’s a big story checking out of the Holiday Inn. You’re going to need to follow him in your car. Take your camera and a couple of rolls of film.”

He always did stuff like that to us. “What’s over there, Hodding? Can you give me a clue?”

He smiled and, in that cultured Delta drawl that had survived Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton and several U.S. Marine Corps officers’ messes, said, “Hurry up, hotshot. You’ll be late.”

 

I went out grumbling, but this was often how I got hot tips from sources Hodding couldn’t reveal. “Hey, John,” he’d say, “when you cover the supervisors’ meeting in a couple of hours, don’t let them try to finesse item 10 on the agenda. If they don’t read it out, let them know you got ’em.”

“Got what?” I’d feel like shouting. Still, I doubt that it would have been possible to work on the side of the angels with more telling effect anywhere else in America in the sixties than on the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times . We also performed a service for those publishers and editors throughout the state who knew of cases of blacks murdered by the police, knew which segregationist politicos were not what they pretended to be, and knew the names of middle-level KKK officers (hard-to-get stuff). They would funnel the information through us, and we would cover the unpleasant messes in their various back yards.

As soon as I drove up to the motel, Senator Kennedy came out and got into the blue sedan someone had rented for his reconnaissance group. I started to jump in with him, but because I had an 11:30 deadline and didn’t know if another staffer would be coming along with a car, I had a feeling that just finding a phone was going to be a half-hour’s job wherever we were going. So I took my own car, a VW Bug.

At about 10:00 A.M. we reached a black community lost in a sea of cotton fields. The few average-income whites and better-off blacks had separated their houses from the much poorer blacks we were visiting with a cyclone fence. The poorer people had outhouses and used big tanks for water storage. There were some indoor bathrooms but very few phones or television sets.