Bobby Kennedy’s Reaction to Seeing Hunger Up Close in America

Robert Kennedy, RFK
Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi by Ellen B. Meacham (left). Senator Robert Kennedy at playground in World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico, February 5, 1966 (right). Photo credit: University Press of Mississippi and Library of Congress / Wikimedia

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).

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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson first talked about his war on poverty in America. Three years later, Robert Kennedy knelt in a crumbling shack in Mississippi, watching a toddler pick rice and beans off of a dirt floor. What Robert Kennedy saw on that trip impacted him deeply, and in part drove his run for the presidency a year later.
While Vietnam was the seminal issue of the day, poverty and its nexus with the civil rights movement were very much on Kennedy’s mind. Let’s listen to Robert Kennedy in Mississippi on that day in April of 1967.
Robert K. (rec): What we have here of course, is a considerable amount of hunger. We have the children with distended stomachs. In the large cities of the country, particularly in the north where there is poverty, still people can live on welfare so that the children don’t suffer. Here, children as well as grown-ups are suffering and, as well as the housing being, of course, completely inadequate, and without any schooling because of the fact that the children have insufficient clothing.
So, as I say, I think it’s a terrible reflection on our society. I think that one of the great problems is, for most of us as Americans is, we don’t run across it. We don’t, for a citizen living under reasonably good conditions in our big cities, we don’t pass through Bedford-Stuyvesant, we don’t pass it through Harlem. For a citizen living here in the state of Mississippi you don’t ordinarily run up against, if you’re doing reasonably well, you don’t run up against this kind of poverty.
And certainly people in the, elsewhere in the country have very little personal knowledge or information about it. It exists, and it seems to me that we should do something about it. It’s long overdue and I don’t think an inadequate poverty program or poverty program that’s on the books and sounds good but is inadequately funded, might solve our conscience and we might say that we’re doing what we should but the fact is that we’re not doing what we should be doing in this country to deal with this problem.
Jeff Schechtman: Here to help us have a greater understanding of all of this, I am joined by Ellen Meacham. She’s been a journalist for more than 20 years and her work has appeared in the New York Times and many other publications. Currently she teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi, and it is my pleasure to welcome Ellen Meacham here to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Ellen, thanks so much for joining us.
Ellen Meacham: Well thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to put this in context and talk a little bit about the whole issue of poverty and the way it was creeping into the national conversation in 1967 and the way it grew out of, in many ways, this sort of lack of energy that the civil rights movement had by 1967.
Ellen Meacham: Right. Well, it was kind of a pivotal time for a lot of things. That’s one thing I thought that made this moment in time so interesting, because there was just so much going on at the time. So as you, so well, did such a great job of sort of setting this up, when Kennedy came in ’67 to Mississippi, he was on a committee, on a senate committee looking at the war on poverty, and there were some programs that were up for re-evaluation or renewal, and the senate was looking at it.
The civil rights movement, it had some tremendous successes in the sense that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had opened up and destroyed the last… Not the last remnants, but destroyed some of the legal obstacles that were in place against African-Americans exercising their rights as citizens and living fully as citizens in the United States, and especially the South, in Mississippi.
King and Kennedy both that spring, Martin Luther King, Dr. King, and Kennedy both were talking about Vietnam and the toll that it was taking. They were looking at it from different perspectives but Martin Luther King had given a speech right before Kennedy came to Mississippi, about America and how it was draining the resources that its citizens needed to fight this war, and the burden of fighting the war was falling in disproportionate amount on poor people and African-Americans, so he was starting to sort of frame it that way.
But they were starting to pivot toward economic justice, definitely starting to talk more about that and you had this quote about, “It’s great”, and I’m badly paraphrasing but, “It’s great if you could sit at a lunch counter. Lunch counters are integrated now, but if you don’t have money to buy a meal, then you’re still shut out of that kind of participation.”
So that was kind of, there was a lot of that going on, Stokely Carmichael, who had just taken over as head of SNCC, one of those main civil rights groups, and he was taking that group in a different direction. There was a lot of question about what was next for the civil rights movement and where they might go and what they might tackle, and how much cooperation they might have from the folks in power.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that was so interesting about this as well, is the way in which poverty was becoming a political issue, even to the point where the two senators from Mississippi at the time, Eastland and Stennis were in denial, or at least said they denied that there was any kind of poverty there at all.
Ellen Meacham: Right, right. I think that they especially were offended at the idea of people starving. The word “starving” was just very inflammatory to them, but it’s certainly just quibbling because the condition of the children was very close to starving. If that’s not your definition of starving, then they were in terribly deprived situations.
Yes, that was one of the things that really surprised me as I was looking at it, is that the folks that were leading and even Jamie Whitten who represented at that time a big part of the Delta, they were in such denial about, at least publicly, about the conditions that their constituents were living in. It was hard to kind of get into that and see. I think part of it is just the old defensive, “Don’t come down here and tell me what’s wrong in my backyard” kind of idea. And so I think some of that played into it.
I think also, that they had become so conditioned to seeing it that they didn’t even see it. And they also didn’t consider African-Americans as definitely full participants in the American experience as full citizens. And it’s hard to say, for sure, whether they saw them fully as human, but they certainly didn’t see them as a group as equal in any way and deserving of equal opportunities and the equal benefits of government.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about those that were along with Robert Kennedy on this trip. As you say, it was a senate committee that had gone down there, and it was quite the entourage.
Ellen Meacham: It sure was, and that was one of the things also that surprised me as I began working on the book is because we’re used to seeing people with some celebrity or who could command the media to show up and they do sort of, we’re used to seeing them doing, which is a good thing, doing these kind of poverty tours where they draw attention to a problem. They go down there and people who follow them with the press also cover the poor children or whatever is happening. And I just thought that was, when I was first started looking at it, that’s kind of what was happening but Peter Edelman, one of Kennedy’s key aides, when I called him to interview, he just really bristled. He said, “It wasn’t a poverty tour.” And he was right. It was a fact-finding mission and that’s exactly …
Daniel Schorr, who was a longtime NPR commentator but before that a CBS newsman and he was on the ball. He really pressed his bosses at CBS to go down there with Kennedy, and was the main television national newsman on the trip. In his report he described Kennedy’s manner as an inspector general, which is a very different kind of demeanor than someone who is down there just to use the media.
Senator Joseph Clark from Pennsylvania was the chairman of that sub-committee, it was the Senate Sub-committee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty. Jacob Javits, who was a liberal republican from New York City, also represented the state of New York as Kennedy did and George Murphy, who was from California, and was sort of along the same veins as Ronald Reagan, had come up through the ranks at the same time. He’d been in the movies before he became a senator.
The other one was, let’s see, Javits, Kennedy, Clark and Murphy. Those were the ones, the four that went to Mississippi and only Joseph Clark and Kennedy flew over to the Delta after they had a pretty dramatic hearing in Jackson. News people followed. They had about 10 cars that were driving around and they landed, they went in Greenville. They saw some job training programs and then they drove up to the Delta.
Jeff Schechtman: How did Kennedy see this poverty differently than the poverty that he had seen and talked about in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York?
Ellen Meacham: Well, you kinda heard that on that clip. It was a great, I thought a great example of … He said it best. He knew that there was, this was worse than anything he had seen in this country, and he told his aide and told one of the journalists that. He had been interested in poverty. It wasn’t like this just suddenly turned on a switch and he was interested in poverty, but I think this shifted it from the abstract of poverty which, if you think about it, it’s kind of a moving target.
If we all sat down and drew a picture, we would probably all come up with something different, or describe poverty, what we think poverty is. But hunger was a concrete, universal human experience that, no matter how wealthy you are, there’s been some point, at some time in your life when you couldn’t eat when you wanted to, and you know what hunger feels like. And to think about extrapolating that to everyday only have a little bit, going day after day when your body’s growing and needing that.
I think that that was one thing that it did for him, and I think he saw the faces of those children and he was connected to those children in ways that he didn’t always connect to grown-ups. He had a really special … Even his enemies said he had a special connection with children. He went to … I think he just couldn’t shake the children’s faces that he had seen. He just couldn’t let them slide away and not try to do something to help them.
Jeff Schechtman: How did he see the Johnson administration’s efforts with respect to the war on poverty?
Ellen Meacham: Well, I think that overall, it’s kind of a shame because the two men had a really deep-seated antipathy for each other. They really, it’s probably pretty safe to say that they hated each other. Mutual contempt. There’s a whole book written about it, it’s a really great book about their relationship. One of the sad parts is that that really got in their way, in their ability to work together to try to solve some of these problems.
Johnson, I think, saw the war on poverty as a way to distinguish himself a little bit from Kennedy, John Kennedy. It was his signature effort. He delivered the Civil Rights Act after Kennedy’s death, but that was very much couched at the time as carrying on John Kennedy’s legacy, and I think this was his effort at a legacy. And also he revered Franklin Roosevelt, so it was a way of throwing back to his hero.
He used Robert Kennedy’s trip to Mississippi as just a chance to make him look bad and show him up, because some of the programs that were well-meaning had actually made it worse in the Delta. That was one of the first things that Kennedy tried to do when he came back was to try to wisen up some of those regulations or make some changes to get food to people on the ground in kind of an emergency way. Johnson was just not at all interested. He tried to get them to deliver the letters somewhere else and deflect it.
Kennedy, as the cities started exploding in riots and Johnson came down really hard on the law and order approach, Kennedy thought that was definitely the wrong approach. Not that he wasn’t a law and order guy, but he didn’t think there was enough attention paid to some of the root causes of what was going on, and that Johnson was just dropping the ball. So yeah, it was a shame that they weren’t able to move past that and work together because they might have been a lot more successful on it.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how Kennedy saw Vietnam as part of the poverty problem, in that Vietnam really sucked up all the political energy of the day.
Ellen Meacham: Absolutely. And I’m so glad you pointed that out because I wanted to make sure that … I do think I’ve got a lot of evidence in the book that this trip to Mississippi was extremely significant in how Kennedy framed and saw things as he went through the last 14 or so months of his life. But Vietnam was again, like you say, that was the thing that really dominated the conversation, dominated the thinking, provided a great deal of impetus toward the presidency, but you’ve got to understand a couple of things that sometimes people forget.
One is the power of the conservative democratic lawmakers, Southern lawmakers in Washington. Because they had been elected for so long by whites only, solid South democratic primaries and elections, general elections, they were long-time incumbents, had risen through the ranks, had a tremendous amount of power over the purse, over judges, Judiciary Committees. Jim Eastland chaired that, and any kind of civil rights bill, he had joked about how the civil rights, he had a special pocket where he put civil rights bills when they came to the Judiciary Committee, and they never saw the light of day again.
Stennis was on the Appropriations Committee, actually it was a sub-committee at the time, later became Chair for the military. In order to get the funding for Vietnam to continue what Johnson thought they needed to do there, they had to go through some of these people who were very hesitant to free up money for poverty programs, and didn’t want to see a lot of civil rights movement and so forth. They had to walk a fine line, and that I think, also affected, the money just started… The war became more and more costly as they escalated things and there was less and less money to try to address some of the poverty.
I think that was part of the nexus. And again, like I said, Keene had pointed out, it was falling, much of the burden of fighting Vietnam was falling on poorer people and poor African-Americans and then they were losing their lives and their limbs and so forth. So I think there was this nexus.
There was also the concern about riots in the city and because of the frustrations that cities were having in that summer, the frustrations of African-Americans were boiling over and that he didn’t think Johnson’s approach was good and he also thought that because of that, people were responding in fear and were less likely to be sympathetic to the needs of those folks, the very real needs.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about King, because this came at a time when King was really trying to shift what had been the civil rights movement into much more of a social justice movement. Talk about that and the way this visit kind of fit into that narrative.
Ellen Meacham: Right, right. Well Kennedy … So King had visited the Delta in Mississippi a year, well Mississippi, a year or so before, for a conference in Jackson, and had heard a lot about this unfolding catastrophe that was happening with the farm workers who were being displaced by mechanization and new herbicides and farming practices, where they skip-row planting and all of these kinds of things.
And then once the farm workers’ minimum wage took effect in February of ’67, it really accelerated mechanization to where you had 24,000 directly affected in this 18 county area in Northwest Mississippi, but 54,000 if you counted the children and the elderly who also worked in the fields some and often lost their homes. These waves, in about an 18-month period, was putting all kinds of people out of work and there was no effort on the state’s part or the federal government to address it.
King tried to get some attention and raise the warning a year or so before, and even had talked about a universal basic income, which … Ted Kennedy was with him for a time at part of that conference but he did not endorse, at that time, the universal basic income. But King was talking about that, he tried to write a letter to officials and warn them about displaced farm workers and their plight in the Delta and hadn’t really gotten anywhere. Hadn’t gone through Robert Kennedy for sure, that I found, that I found anything, but had gotten some coverage in the Times and a few other places. King was aware of the problem and had tried to bring a little bit of attention to it.
And then Marian Wright, who also worked closely with King and knew Martin Luther King, she went to Washington in March, for the first hearing of ’67 and went off topic. She was defending Head Start at that hearing but she said, “Look, people in the Delta are starving. We don’t know what … The farm workers’ minimum wage has not having a very good effect on where they are. They can’t get free commodities any more. They have to buy their food stamps, and somebody needs to do something about it.”
She was very direct. She was a young woman. She’s sort of the second heroine of the book because she just was very direct and matter of fact about, “You have a responsibility to do it.” So they decided, the next month to come to hold a hearing across the country, but the first one would be in Mississippi.
After Kennedy got back, and he and King didn’t have a strong relationship at all, and David Margolick has a great new book out about that, the relationship between King and Kennedy. They didn’t have a great relationship but Kennedy tried to get some changes immediately, so that people could get some food on the ground in Mississippi in April. Went to a couple of different conferences, asked to speak about it … Committees, not conferences, committees there in the Senate, trying to bring attention to it, asked them to change some policies that they were considering, and was getting nowhere.
He came back from one of those committee meetings and wrote a note to King that said, “I’ve just come back from Mississippi Delta. I’ve been trying to talk to these committees. I see what you’re talking about and I would love to talk with you further about … I’d like to talk with you further. I’m interested in any ideas you have.”
I could never find that King responded. There was a note that said that, from King’s secretary, that said, “We received your letter, Senator Robert Kennedy’s letter. Dr King is traveling. He will be in touch when he gets back.” But they may have had a phone conversation, I don’t know. I never saw any other paper evidence that they talked about Mississippi after that.
But that was a big deal for Kennedy to reach across, as Taylor Branch says, reach across their contentious relationship, reach out and acknowledge, “Look, I see what you’re talking about now. Let’s talk about some solutions.”
Jeff Schechtman: What was the impact of Kennedy’s visit? What was the broader impact of the visit, beyond the immediate news cycle, Daniel Schorr’s report as you talked about before? What impact did it have over time?
Ellen Meacham: Over time, well there are a couple things. It’s hard to draw, you can’t just draw a direct line and say he went to Mississippi and then this policy happened. But what he did was change the conversation for quite a while, from poverty to hunger and hungry children.
So much of the news coverage and the popular culture of the time really showed America a post-war prosperity. There were not as many kinds of news outlets as we have now, for better or for worse, and there weren’t that many channels that you could watch, and so what most of Americans saw was, “Hey, we came out of the great depression, we won World War II, and now we’re booming.”
So when Kennedy went and the news cycle happened, a lot of journalists took note and so you started to get a lot more coverage. And then he went to Eastern Kentucky with the committee and to some Native American reservations and to California where there were migrant workers and then he found that there were people all over the country who were just about as hungry as the folks in Mississippi, and suffering.
He also went off … One of the things he did in Mississippi is make unscheduled stops because he didn’t just want to see what the advocates wanted him to see. He started doing that a lot when he went to Kentucky and other places and asked real people who weren’t set up, to tell him what their lives were like.
But there was also, after he died, there was a Select Committee on hunger and poverty, and that committee was quite active, but one of the big things that happened was, there’d never been a national nutritional survey done. There had been surveys done here or there over the years, so one of the big things that happened that was a pivot point was this national … They got them to agree, Kennedy, in the fall got them to agree to do the Department of Agriculture National Nutritional Survey, where they tried to get an idea of where all health, food aid, and how Americans were eating, where they were hungry, where they weren’t getting enough.
The report came back with quite a surprising level of hunger and malnutrition and lack of nutritional diversity, and lack of availability of food, lack of money. That study really drove a lot of the policies after Kennedy was killed. As that committee started working, even it went to Richard Nixon and Richard Nixon was surprisingly receptive to some of the reports that came in on hunger and worked with some of his advocates to try … He was more receptive to the ideas of food aid.
Then, when you started getting women, infants and children, which is WIC, which is a supplement. Pregnant mothers and nursing mothers with babies, babies, and that was really big. It took 10 years to waive the cost of food stamps so that you could get the food stamps for free and now its SNAP. And another thing was that in 1967, counties could opt out of the federal school lunch program, and now I don’t think they even could if they wanted to, but I don’t think there’s any counties that do.
The children he saw, the Delta did not get free school lunches because those counties had opted out of it, and now in the Delta and elsewhere, there’s free lunches, free breakfasts even. So there became a much more focus on, “Let’s try to address hunger especially and see that as a concrete issue rather than just abstract poverty.”
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, how surprised was Kennedy by what he saw that day, and what real personal impact did it have on him?
Ellen Meacham: It really shook him, and his family, I talked to Mrs. Kennedy and to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his oldest daughter and one of his older sons, Robert Kennedy Jr. They were really great to talk to me, and they all remember him coming back from Mississippi the very night and just stopping at the door, and seeing his … He had this well-fed, lovely brood of 10 children and eventually there was 11, and just looking at them there in the dining room and just stopping and saying, “Look, you know, I’ve just been to Mississippi. Children have sores on their bodies because they don’t get the right food, their stomachs are distended, they live at, whole families live in shacks the size of this dining room, and you know, do something for your country.” And then they spent the rest of the evening, children were concerned and were talking about what could be done for them and it really stuck with them.
The next morning he tried to … I talked to one of his interns who saw him come in. She was working for his secretary, his secretary was out and she saw him come in and pull out little pieces of paper and spread them on the desk and call and say, “Can you send a box of shoes to this address?” “Can you get some cartons of soup to that address?” He was personally trying to address the families that he saw.
He talked about them in a speech. It was overshadowed by the heartfelt speech he gave after Martin Luther King’s assassination in Indiana, but that very day he had given two big speeches in Notre Dame and Ball State where he rolled out his hunger and poverty plans as president and it got overshadowed because of what he did later that night. But he says, “We speak of human beings, not statistics.” He said several times, “I’ve seen these children. I’ve held them, I’ve touched them.” And so I think it made him realize, I think he had a face for that suffering that he couldn’t forget.
Jeff Schechtman: Ellen Meacham. The book is Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi. Ellen, I thank you so much for spending time with us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Ellen Meacham: Well thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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