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Hunger is Back 45 Years After Sen. Kennedy’s Delta Visit

By Sandra Knispel | Published 23 Feb 2012 09:11pm | comments
Panel members at UM's Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, among them former civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, watch a clip from a PBS documentary in which she testifies some 45 years earlier before Congress on poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta. Foto: UM's Andy Harper

Hunger is back in the Delta and across America. Forty-five years after the late Senator Robert Kennedy visited the Mississippi Delta, shocked by the pervasive poverty, participants of that historic Delta tour met for a panel discussion at the University of Mississippi. MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports.

[Nat sound documentary voice-over] “In the South poverty was even more wide-spread. Field hands earned as little as $3 a day. [music] A senate committee was invited to Mississippi by a colleague of [Martin Luther] King’s, Marian Wright." Wright: "They are starving. And those who can get the bus fare to go north are trying to go north.”

The PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” in one of its segments tells the story of how Robert Kennedy came to visit the Delta in 1967, knocking on the doors of small shacks, visibly shaken by what he encountered. Journalist George Lapides was there with Kennedy, covering the trip for the now-defunct Press-Scimitar of Memphis.

“And I saw Senator Kennedy, who was dressed in a beautiful pinstripe, charcoal-gray suit, sitting on a dirt floor with a child about 18-months old with a distended stomach. Senator Kennedy had him sitting on his lap and tears were coming down Senator Kennedy’s eyes.”

In 1967, with the civil rights struggle largely over, the focus of the American public had turned to the War in Vietnam, and most were unaware of the dire living conditions in the Delta, especially among African Americans, says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nick Kotz. When Kennedy came he brought the national media along, which turned the public’s attention to hunger and poverty in their midst.

“We were now trying to confront the issues that remained. And those were issues of poverty, lack of housing, lack of proper education, job training, and the most fundamental thing of all: lack of food.”

Part of the panel discussion was also Marian Wright Edelman, who had featured prominently in the PBS documentary as the young civil rights lawyer in Mississippi who had led Kennedy through the Delta. In the 1960s and 70s she repeatedly testified to Congress on the need for social programs to alleviate the suffering and helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign.

“The legacy of the Poor People’s Campaign is that there is a safety net program. And it’s called food stamps, and it’s called WIC, and it’s called school lunches and school breakfasts," Wright Edelman says. And we’ve got to do better about the summer feeding program. Because hunger does not end in June.”

It took years for these federal programs to become established, and for a brief moment in the late 1970s, Wright Edelman says, hunger in this country had largely been conquered. But with the rollback of some welfare programs, she says, hunger has crept back into the Delta and it’s time to fight back.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.

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Panel members at UM's Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, among them former civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, watch a clip from a PBS documentary in which she testifies some 45 years earlier before Congress on poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta. Foto: UM's Andy Harper


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