The continuing scourge of poverty, hunger and hopelessness in Rich America

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 4/24/2017, 8:43 a.m.
In March 1967, when I was working as a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in ...
Marian Wright Edelman

Children’s Defense Fund

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 testify before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty in Washington about how the War on Poverty was working in the state. I said 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 of them 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. 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 agreed to come: Senators Joseph Clark (D-Penn.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and George Murphy (R-Calif.).

On April 10, 1967, I testified alongside local community leaders at a follow-up hearing held by the Senate subcommittee in Jackson, Mississippi, sharing again the desperate plight of hungry people. I urged the visiting senators to 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.

Kennedy and Clark responded positively to my plea.

The next day, we were in Cleveland, guided by one of the great unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement – Amzie Moore. We visited homes where Kennedy opened their empty iceboxes and cupboards after asking their permission. I watched him hover, visibly moved 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. Outside he asked the older children clad in ragged clothes “What did you have for breakfast?” They said they had not had breakfast yet, although it was nearly noon.

Kennedy and Clark went the 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 with no income. The state had changed from free food commodities to food stamps that cost $2, which jobless people did not have.

Freeman did not believe there were people in the U.S. with no income, even after the senators told him they had seen them. The next day, he sent his staff to Mississippi to verify, and Kennedy sent Peter Edelman back with them to lead them through the same desolate shacks to meet 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.