About the Book
In April of 1967, a year before his ill-fated run for president, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy knelt in a crumbling shack in Mississippi trying to coax a response from a listless child. The toddler sat picking at dried rice and beans spilled over the dirt floor as Kennedy, brother to a president, a former U.S. attorney general and father of 10 children thus far, touched his distended stomach and stroked his face and hair, saying “Hi, hi baby.” After several minutes with little response, the senator reluctantly walked out the back door, wiping away tears.
As he toured the Mississippi Delta, an impoverished cotton-producing region in the northwest part of the state, Kennedy talked with mothers about how they fed their children. He looked in empty refrigerators and asked preschoolers about their breakfast. What he found in Mississippi stunned both Kennedy and, through the press coverage that inevitably followed him, America.
Kennedy’s visit to the Mississippi Delta as part of a Senate subcommittee investigation of poverty programs caught the national news media’s attention for a few days, but Kennedy, the people he encountered, Mississippi, and the nation felt the impact of that journey for much longer. On his return to Washington, Kennedy immediately began seeking ways to help the children he met in Mississippi. However, his efforts were frustrated both by institutional obstacles and blocked by powerful men who were indifferent and, at times, even hostile to the plight of poor black children.
Kennedy, who had not decided to run for president when he visited Mississippi, spent only a few hours in the Delta. And although the disastrous course of the Vietnam War weighed heavily in his decision-making, there is strong evidence that the visit to Mississippi and its aftermath crystallized many of the domestic issues that later moved Kennedy toward his candidacy for the presidency.
In 1967 Kennedy pushed into places others would not go to see poverty for himself. What he found motivated him to work for change in ways that still reverberate today, for this is also a story about America at a pivotal moment in its history. This narrative illuminates the complexities of the nation’s War on Poverty, its failures, successes, and insufficiencies. It also provides insight into the challenges facing the civil rights movement as it evolved beyond securing legal rights to remedying economic inequalities.
This book tells the story of his visit, but it also offers much more. It examines the forces of history, economics and politics in the Delta and how they shaped the lives of the children he met in Mississippi in 1967 and in the decades that followed. We know, sadly, what happened to Robert Kennedy, but this book also introduces us to four of the children, including the baby on the floor, who moved Kennedy so and finishes their stories as well.
America’s commitment to providing for the least of its citizens has waxed and waned, in large measure because of the priorities and capabilities of its elected officials. Robert Kennedy was a skilled and charismatic leader who was moved by the people he met in Mississippi. He talked about what he had seen there for the remaining 14 months of his life, and, when he ran for president, his vision for America was shaped by the plight of the hungry children he encountered there. Robert Kennedy’s time in Mississippi was short, but when he traveled deep into the Delta, he was taking an essential step toward his and the nation’s destiny.
“Ellen Meacham’s book is superb. At its heart is the day in April 1967 in Mississippi when Robert Kennedy saw American children malnourished to a degree that would have been thought impossible in our nation. The story has been told before but not like this. The book is beautifully written, and Meacham tells the story in a depth not previously reached. She also nests it in a history and politics of racism and feudalism that explain how this American tragedy could happen and how it resulted in a national commitment to do better. I was there that day with Robert Kennedy and I can testify firsthand. This is a must-read.”
Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center and author of Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America