With RFK In The Delta

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The houses were probably 40 years old, unpainted and sparsely furnished but in good repair. They were bunched together higgledy-piggledy in what anyone raised in Mississippi would have recognized as “quarters,” around a central tamped-earth court where women washed their clothes in huge pots of boiling water, stirring the laundry with short paddles just as they had in the 1850s.

I introduced myself to Kennedy, who was shorter than I had imagined and seemed frail. His nose was more hooked than it appeared in photographs, he was deeply tanned, and he kept trying to brush his thick, longish hair out of his face when the wind kicked up. His blue suit didn’t look much better than mine. He spoke in a low, breathy voice, and at times we reporters and the blacks we had inflicted ourselves upon had to strain to hear him. Most of all, he just looked terribly, terribly tired. I knew that he had played football for Harvard and still played touch football with his family. I knew he didn’t smoke or drink. But he seemed worn out, chastened, by something that had to be more than fatigue.

NONE OF THE OTHER CANDIDATES HAD SEEN A FAMILY TRYING TO LIVE OFF A JAR OF PEANUT BUTTER.

Then we began moving through the houses. The people in the small crowd we had attracted ranged in age from 3 to 63, yet none appeared to be between 15 and about 50. When you saw Third World population distribution like that, you knew that those in the middle, the employables, had gone off to the cities—the ones that had burned that year and the year before. No one here had a job, and very few had decent clothes.

The first house we walked into had a refrigerator in a big room. Kennedy opened it. The only item inside was a jar of peanut butter. There was no bread. We walked outside, and he held out his hand to a bunch of young, filthy, ragged but thrilled kids. In a minute or two he was stopped by a short, aging, very heavy black woman in old, baggy clothes. I regret to say that I’d become inured to poverty by a childhood and young adulthood in the Delta, but this poor woman was in awful shape even for Mississippi.

She thanked Senator Kennedy for coming to see them and said that she was too old to be helped by any new program but she hoped the children might be. Kennedy, moved, softly asked her how old she was. “I’m 33,” she said. Both he and I recoiled.

We moved into the central courtyard, where the local weekly editor interrogated Kennedy almost belly to belly, lighting into liberals of every stripe. Kennedy would patiently reply and then touch his neck right above the collar with his right hand. It got to be eerie; it reminded me of his brother’s reaction to the first shot that had hit him.

I had my deadline to meet, so after a while I thanked Kennedy and drove to a pay phone to call in my story. I never saw him again; he was murdered just 14 months later.

Years afterward my wife, Pat, watching television, happened on a film titled Robert Kennedy Remembered , which had won the Oscar for best short subject (live-action) in 1968. “John,” she yelled, “you’re in this.” I walked in just in time to see Kennedy open the fridge and look at the jar of peanut butter. In the next sequence he is outside shaking hands with those tattered kids, and I am behind him, photographing him.

We are like figures in the old silent movies; we are as remote as the warriors in the Bayeux tapestry.

What we lost in the sixties is incalculable, but of all the might-have-beens, the one that still haunts me is what might have happened had Robert Francis Kennedy been elected President of the United States. He was a liberal who in a series of almost unreported speeches delivered in January 1966 had questioned the welfare state. He was still hacking away at 1930s liberalism in the California campaign that ended in his death. If Nixon, an anti-Communist, could go to China, would not Robert Kennedy have gone to business for a plan to defeat poverty?

What he might have accomplished as President we can only imagine. But Kennedy knew what had to be fixed. None of the other candidates had seen a family trying to live off a jar of cheap peanut butter. None of the others had seen an American in her thirties so aged by hunger and poverty that she already regarded herself as old and discarded.

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