What Mississippi Taught Bobby Kennedy About Poverty
OXFORD, MISS. — The toddler had no time for this white man in a fine dark suit. Robert Kennedy may have been a former attorney general and the brother of a slain president, but Annie White’s son was focused on the cornbread crumbs scattered on the floor of his dilapidated home in Cleveland, Miss.
Mr. Kennedy was in the Mississippi Delta, 50 years ago this week, for a Senate subcommittee examination of War on Poverty programs. While testifying before the panel, Marian Wright, a 27-year-old NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer, had sounded an alarm: The Delta was in crisis. The senator decided to see for himself.
What he saw on his widely publicized trip shocked a nation used to postwar abundance. Americans would be even more shocked to know that 50 years later, the Delta remains desperately poor. In the three counties Senator Kennedy visited, poverty rates for children younger than 18 still hover around 50 percent. Too many families there face a hard knot of problems: food deserts, failing schools, poor infrastructure, unhealthy populations, shrinking economies, the long shadow of segregation and discrimination.
It’s easy to conclude that little has changed since Mr. Kennedy’s trip. But a closer look reveals bright spots. Many of the programs that are working well align with Mr. Kennedy’s core convictions about how to improve the lives of poor people.
Mr. Kennedy was convinced, especially after his time in Mississippi, that poverty programs are most successful when they are informed by the voices of poor people themselves. He trusted the families he met there, and later in Appalachia, blighted city neighborhoods in the Northeast and the fields of California, to know what would help them the most.