- Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi by Ellen B. Meacham
The year 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (RFK). Attorney general in the administrations of his brother John F. Kennedy and (briefly) Lyndon B. Johnson, RFK then served as senator from New York and finally as candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 before a sniper's bullet found him. Bookshelves groan under the weight of volumes written about the Kennedys. Recent ones on RFK include the important, well-respected biographies by Evan Thomas (Robert Kennedy: His Life [New York, 2000]) and Larry Tye (Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon [New York, 2016]). In 2017 MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews contributed his own popular rendition of RFK's life (Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit [New York, 2017]). The anniversary has spawned a large number of journalistic retrospectives and even a four-part Netflix documentary series, all suggesting an ongoing public fascination with the younger Kennedy brother, almost rivaling that for the martyred president.
University of Mississippi journalism professor Ellen B. Meacham enters the Kennedy publishing arena by doing something smart: narrowing her focus to RFK's concerns about poverty and hunger in America and widening her lens to include the experiences of the people—particularly poor African Americans—who were touched by Kennedy when he visited the Mississippi Delta in 1967. The centerpiece of Meacham's beautifully written narrative is this brief trip to Mississippi, when Kennedy was accompanied by photographers, reporters, [End Page 223] and Marian Wright, a young African American lawyer and civil rights activist who testified before the Senate about the dire hunger plaguing the Delta poor, particularly its children. In the years to come, Wright, along with RFK staffer Peter Edelman, became highly visible advocates for children, particularly through Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. (One of the delightful side stories Meacham tells is of the budding romance between the black civil rights lawyer and the white, Jewish Kennedy aide.)
The story of Robert Kennedy, son of one of the richest men in America, confronting malnourished and ragged children in crumbling sharecropper shacks, particularly his tender gestures in reaching out and caressing them, has been told numerous times. Meacham has interviewed many journalists and Kennedy staffers, and her use of their accounts heightens the almost saintly image often presented of RFK in the period after his brother's assassination. No critical revisionism, Meacham's volume continues the celebration of the Kennedys as representing the highest ideals in American politics. Considering the current political environment, this impulse in understandable.
A real strength of Meacham's approach to examining Kennedy's time in Mississippi and his concern about poverty in the Delta is her detailed discussion of the political landscape of planters and farmworkers in 1960s Mississippi. Mechanization and the use of pesticides upended the agricultural economy, leaving black farmers, whose agricultural labor was no longer needed, destitute. The villains in Meacham's telling include most Mississippi journalists and Senators James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, who all blindly refused to believe either the findings of the Senate committee or what Kennedy saw with his own eyes. Meacham singles out as particularly despicable the Mississippi congressman who represented the Delta region, Jamie L. Whitten. Chairing the appropriations committee for the Department of Agriculture, Whitten controlled the purse strings and ensured that no emergency food aid went to poor black Mississippians, even as he doled out millions in subsidies to rich white planters. The impulse appears to have been to starve black Mississippians into leaving the state.
The crowning feature of Meacham's work is her in-depth interviews with the African Americans who were touched by Kennedy's visit, in particular members of the destitute family RFK engaged with so poignantly when the senator got down on the dusty, dirty floor with a listless, starving toddler picking stray bits of rice off the ground. Meacham managed to find this family and a number...