April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
FINDING POCKETS OF POVERTY WAS EASY
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.
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.
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.