MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: The Scourge of Poverty, Hunger and Hopelessness in Rich America

This photo of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was taken during a press conference in November 1964. (Dick DeMarsico/NYWTS/CC)

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, April 4, 1967

In March 1967 when I was working as a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was asked to come to Washington to testify before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty about how the War on Poverty was working in the state. I told the committee I had become deeply and increasingly concerned about the growing hunger in the Mississippi Delta. The convergence of hostility towards black citizens and workers involved in civil rights activities, development of chemical weed killers, farm mechanization, and recent passage of a minimum wage law covering agriculture workers on large farms had resulted in many black sharecroppers being pushed off their near feudal plantations that no longer needed their cheap labor. Many displaced sharecroppers were illiterate and had no skills or income. Free federal food commodities like cheese, powdered milk, flour, and peanut butter were all that stood between them and hunger and malnutrition — even starvation. At the hearing, I invited the senators to come to Mississippi and hear directly from local people about the crucial and positive impact the anti-poverty program was making and the state’s actions to encourage people to leave. Four of the nine subcommittee members — Sens. Joseph Clark (D-Pa.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and George Murphy (R-Calif.) — agreed to come.

So 50 years ago this month, on April 10, 1967, I testified alongside local community leaders at a followup hearing held by the Senate subcommittee in Jackson, Mississippi, sharing again the desperate plight of hungry people. I urged the visiting senators to go one step further and visit the Mississippi Delta with me to see and experience for themselves the hungry poor in our very rich nation, and to visit the shacks and look into the deadened eyes of hungry children with bloated bellies — a level of hunger many people did not believe could exist in America. “They are starving and someone has to help them,” I said. Kennedy and Clark responded positively to my plea.

Early the next day we flew from Jackson to the Greenville airbase in the Mississippi Delta and drove from Greenville to Clarksdale, stopping in Cleveland guided by one of the great unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement — Amzie Moore. We visited homes where the senators asked respectfully what each family had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner the night before. Robert Kennedy opened their empty ice boxes and cupboards after asking their permission. I watched him hover, visibly moved, on a dirt floor in a dirty dark shack out of television camera range over a listless baby boy with bloated belly from whom he tried in vain to get a response as he lightly touched the baby’s cheeks. When we went outside again he asked the older children clad in ragged clothes standing outside their shack “What did you have for breakfast?” They responded, saying, “We haven’t had no breakfast yet,” although it was nearly noon. And he gently touched their faces and tried to offer words of encouragement to their hopeless and helpless mothers.

When we traveled to another Delta town, our motorcade ran over the dog of a small white boy watching from the sidewalk. Sen. Kennedy stopped the motorcade and got out to comfort the boy and tell the police escort to slow down.

From this trip and throughout the 15 months I knew him until his assassination June 6, 1968, I came to associate Robert Kennedy with nonverbal communications that conveyed far more than words, touching a child’s cheek, head or shoulders. And his capacity for genuine outrage and compassion was palpable.

He kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children and he and Clark went the very next day to see Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman and urged him to “get the food down there” and to eliminate any charges for food stamps for people who had no income. The state had changed from free food commodities to food stamps which cost $2 jobless poor people did not have. Secretary Freeman did not believe there were people in the United States with no income even after the senators told him they had seen them. Secretary Freeman said he would send Department of Agriculture staff to Mississippi to verify. He sent his staff back to Mississippi the next day and Robert Kennedy sent Peter Edelman back with them to lead them through the same desolate shacks and meet some desolate families. Robert Kennedy’s pushing, passion, and visibility helped activate a range of important people and set in motion a chain of events that led to major activities and reforms being adopted over ensuing months and years.

Dr. King’s April 4, 1968, assassination was an incredibly huge blow to the Poor People’s Campaign, but his staff proceeded to gather the poor of all races including organizing a Mule Train from Marks, Mississippi to travel to “Resurrection City” in D.C. We made visits to many federal agencies for which I had the privilege of helping prepare policy papers and supporting Dr. King’s successor Rev. Abernathy and SCLC staff. A key demand was an end to hunger. In later April 1968, the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition released their report Hunger, U.S.A., which identified 282 “hunger counties” in 23 states where emergency action was needed. Another report by the Committee on School Lunch Participation, Their Daily Bread, found “generally speaking, the greater the need of children from a poor neighborhood, the less the community is able to meet it.” In May 1968, CBS Reports produced a powerful documentary on “Hunger in America” that shocked and outraged the nation including showing a malnourished mother giving birth to a severely malnourished dying baby.

Momentum continued to build following coverage of the crisis. A Senate hearing with representatives from Resurrection City and Dr. Abernathy and Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a key District of Columbia SCLC leader, told the story of pervasive hunger, poverty and joblessness among poor Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican Americans, and white Americans. Before the hearing, I had many Resurrection City residents line up and stand along the sides of the Senate subway to the Capitol so the senators could see them when they went to vote. One senator came up to congratulate me on “your people’s costumes.” I was shocked and told him, “These are not costumes, senator, these are their real clothes.”

Following Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June and the moving stop of his hearse and funeral procession on the way to burial at Arlington Cemetery where the poor sang him farewell with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Resurrection City was dismantled immediately. But copies of Hunger, U.S.A., and a range of specific demands to both the Department of Agriculture and the White House continued. The Senate approved the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) with eight Democrats and five Republicans and they began conducting hearings on the status of hunger, food assistance and nutrition that continued over the next several years.

Today, 50 years after Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s trips to the Mississippi Delta, President Trump’s first full budget next month is expected to try to take much of the safety net away again by capping funding, proposing block grants and enacting deep cuts to programs like food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other nutrition, child and family health supports, crucial early childhood programs, education and housing investments and accountability protections for disadvantaged and disabled children. Stand up and fight back with us with all your might everybody!

The day he was assassinated, Dr. King called his mother to give her his next Sunday’s sermon title: “Why America May Go to Hell.” He warned that “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.” I think we are going there fast.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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