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 toward 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.
So 50 years ago this month, on April 10, 1967, I testified alongside local community leaders at a follow-up hearing held by the Senate subcommittee in Jackson, Miss., 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 air base 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.
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, “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. 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.
Kennedy kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children, as he and Clark went the very next day to see U.S. 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 that jobless poor people did not have.
Freeman did not believe there were people in the United States with no income even after the senators told him they had seen them. Freeman said he would send Department of Agriculture staff to Mississippi to verify. He sent his staff back to Mississippi the next day and Kennedy sent Peter Edelman back with them to lead them through the same desolate shacks and meet some desolate families.
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.
In May 1967, the Field Foundation, headed by a great Southerner Leslie Dunbar, sent a team of doctors to examine poor children in Mississippi who reported back to the Senate subcommittee that they found not just severe malnutrition but children suffering from diseases thought to exist only in underdeveloped countries.
Their report, “Hungry Children,” was published by the Southern Regional Council.
In August 1967 a Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States, supported by the Citizens’ Crusade against Poverty and the Field Foundation, began a nationwide study of the hunger crisis.
I came to Washington to visit my now special friend Peter Edelman and went out to Hickory Hill to see Kennedy and share my frustration with the slow pace of progress in helping the hungry poor. When I told him I was stopping in Atlanta to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the way back to Jackson, he told me to tell King to bring the poor to Washington and make poverty and hunger visible in the nation’s capital.
When I sat down in King’s modest Auburn Avenue office he was visibly depressed but his eyes lit up when I conveyed the Kennedy message as the Vietnam War had overshadowed the needs of poor people at home. Earlier that spring, King had been widely condemned for criticizing the Vietnam War at Riverside Church by Black and white leaders who thought he should segregate his conscience about the related violence of war and the violence of poverty.
After robust and cantankerous Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff debates in ensuing weeks and months, King decided to launch a Poor People’s Campaign and began planning for it. He convened meetings of the Black, Latino, Native American, and white poor over the ensuing months and I began planning to move to Washington to serve as federal policy liaison.
King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, 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 Washington, D.C.
We made visits to many federal agencies for which I had the privilege of helping prepare policy papers and supporting King’s successor, the Rev. Ralph 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 its 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 Abernathy and the 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 as 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 National Cemetery in Virginia 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.
The poor returned home bereft after Robert Kennedy’s assassination but I stayed in Washington and founded the Children’s Defense Fund’s parent organization – the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm created to serve the federal policy demands for the campaign and monitor the implementation of federal laws. Abernathy and SCLC representatives and a group of poor people from the campaign returned to Washington later for an accountability session.
We met with President Richard Nixon and his entire Cabinet in the White House and asked for reports on progress made to the campaign’s early demands at federal agencies. Nixon answered most of our queries with his efforts to end the Vietnam War. But in January 1969 the president established the Council on Urban Affairs headed by Pat Moynihan, his Domestic Policy Advisor, which soon affirmed hunger was a major problem and the president released a special message to Congress, recommending a program to end hunger in America in May.
Nixon convened a December 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, and declared hunger had no place in our rich land. The bipartisan McGovern congressional committee continued with hearings documenting hunger and pushing for adequate federal response as a growing number of anti-hunger groups demanded reforms to end hunger. A range of positive follow-up policy steps led to the beginning of a series of expansions of the federal food safety net programs that so many tens of millions depend on today.
The significant visibility and incremental progress begun by the Poor People’s Campaign spawned major progress over time and paved the path for the indispensable child and family nutrition safety net that today helps millions of Americans beat back the wolves of hunger.
The major gains in significantly reducing child and family hunger through expanded federal investments and pressure from Congress during the Nixon years came under attack from Reagan administration. The Reagan budget proposed to dismantle almost the entire federal safety net and to block grant and dismantle a range of crucial programs for low income children and families — threats we face again today with the Trump administration.
CDF issued a quick and sharp analysis of the Reagan budget and its proposed devastating impact on the poor and convened a spate of congressional briefings and tried to wake up the country to the looming threats. Although we lost tens of billions of dollars in federal budget cuts, we succeeded in keeping the framework of the crucial federal laws for children and families in place and laboriously got back the dollars cut year by year.
We now are at risk of the same massive destruction of our nation’s federal safety net. We must stand together and say no — we will not go backwards!
Today, 50 years after Kennedy’s and King’s trips to the Mississippi Delta, President Donald Trump’s first full budget 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, 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!
SNAP helps feed 19.9 million American children — 1 in 4 — preventing children and families from going hungry and improving their overall health. SNAP kept 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2014, including 3.8 million children, and is the most responsive means tested program during economic downturns.
In fiscal 2015, there were 4.9 million households with no income but SNAP, including 1.3 million households with children. That year SNAP benefits averaged only $1.41 a person, a meal and more than half of all families receiving SNAP were still food insecure.
The Urban Institute determined in research commissioned for CDF’s 2015 “Ending Child Poverty Now” report that an increase in SNAP of about 30 percent, when combined with other modest policy changes, would decrease hunger for an estimated 12.6 million families with children and reduce child poverty 16 percent. The report found that the SNAP improvement and other policy reforms could reduce overall child poverty 60 percent and Black child poverty 72 percent for $77.2 billion, less than the cost at the time of closing tax loopholes that allow U.S. corporations to dodge $90 billion each year in federal income taxes by shifting profits to subsidiaries in tax havens.
Kennedy, in addressing the hunger emergency, always understood the real culprit was poverty and lack of good jobs. Today, jobs with decent wages, training, and education are critical to providing hope for restless youths and unskilled older men and women left behind by a changing economy.
I hope everyone in America will stand up and say no to the political budget meanness running amok on Capitol Hill and resist all efforts to dismantle and cut child health, child nutrition, child care, education, child welfare and juvenile justice investments serving our most vulnerable children and youths. And to do what? Add $54 billion more to the defense budget and increase tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires?
What Bible do these leaders read?
The day he was assassinated, 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. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.