By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
I am deeply grateful for the extraordinary life and brilliant reporting of Nick Kotz who died in a tragic accident at the beautiful Virginia farm he and his wonderful wife Mary Lynn and son Jack shared so generously with so many friends. I met Kotz in 1967 when he came to Mississippi to cover Senators Joseph Clark, Robert Kennedy, Jacob Javits and George Murphy’s transforming visit to see first-hand the shocking levels of poverty, hunger and nearly starving Black children and adults in the Mississippi Delta.
I was practicing law in that harsh segregated state where many thousands of adults and children were going hungry and on the edge of starvation while its powerful Jim Crow senators and representatives and state officials did nothing. They were eager to have poor Black citizens leave the state. They dragged their feet on getting federal food commodities and other federal programs to help the hungry and other needy poor people, especially Black people. Kotz’s coverage for the Des Moines Register and his 1969 book Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger helped put hunger on the national agenda which led to major reforms in federal food programs that benefit many millions of Americans today.
Let Them Eat Promises, with a preface by Senator George McGovern, followed up Senators Robert Kennedy and Joseph Clark’s visits to the shacks of hungry and extremely poor children with bloated stomachs and their despondent parents, and chronicled their struggles to get food to the desperately poor and hungry in that state and across our nation. Kotz’s book helped spur the federal response not only to the huge problem in poor Mississippi but in rural and urban areas across the country and was a turning point revealing the fundamental inadequacies of federal, state, and local nutrition safety nets for the invisible poor of all races. Advocacy groups and Congressional hearings led to follow up actions by the Nixon administration to strengthen our nation’s food safety net and stave off widespread hunger in the richest nation on earth. A network of anti-hunger groups formed in this era which continue today to monitor and protect funding for these programs which benefit millions of people, who all owe Kotz’s extraordinary reporting a huge debt of gratitude.
Kotz had already earned a national reputation for brilliant investigative reporting through his revelations of horrifying conditions and weak regulations in meatpacking plants which led Congress to pass new legislation to protect consumers and won him a much deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1968. Throughout his life, Kotz wrote about dangerous threats to American life, values and well-being, paying special attention to all those left behind in our nation. He was a conservationist who was passionate about preserving the history and culture of the rural Piedmont communities around his farm, including several historically Black communities, where he and his beautiful and talented Mississippi born wife Mary Lynn and son Jack extended warm hospitality to friends. He also was a leader of the group that helped persuade the Disney Corporation to abandon plans to build a theme park in the region. Kotz believed in equal justice under the law and equal rights to pursue happiness for all in our economically rich but still too spiritually and morally anemic nation, which continues to tolerate 10.5 million children living in poverty.
My family was blessed to share Nick, Mary Lynn and Jack’s treasured friendship and hospitality for about 50 years. Happily they were members of the nearby Washington Hebrew Congregation and had an apartment in our neighborhood. My prayers and love go out to Mary Lynn, Jack, and their grandson Nathan. How my family and so many friends and others across our nation are blessed to have known this justice warrior, gifted writer and friend. Let’s follow his example. Let’s honor him by carrying on his passion for justice for those left behind.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is Leave No Child Behind. For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.