A warm day in April, 1967, Bobby Kennedy and I stood alone in the tiny, dank kitchen of a shotgun shack in the Delta where only a snatch of dried beans and rice were visible to feed a family of eight and the oozing stench of poverty pervaded the hovel. Up front huddled the black family who lived there.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before, senator?”, I asked, thinking the bushy-haired patrician New Englander would say never before until he plunged into the bowels of poverty of the Mississippi Delta.
But I was wrong. “Yes, I have – in Harlem and in Southeast Asia,” I remember RFK saying. Then we pressed on from one dusty little town to another across the Delta, seeing endless heart-wrenching scenes of hunger among rural black folks no longer needed to plant and harvest crops on the vast cotton plantations.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the senator's eldest daughter, remembered last week on the 40th anniversary of his assassination that after he returned from his trip into the Mississippi Delta how deeply he had been moved by the experience. “I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room – the children's stomachs were distended (from malnutrition) and had sores all over them,” Kathleen Townsend recalled him saying.
The Delta hunger tour had not been on Kennedy's agenda when he and fellow Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania came to Jackson in April, 1967 for a day-long hearing to learn about reports that rural blacks in Mississippi were enduring hunger—even starvation – despite Lyndon Johnson's “war on poverty.” Remember, RFK was then opposing LBJ's re-election.
What Kennedy heard that day, from the mouths of dozens of blacks bussed in by anti-poverty groups working in the state, prompted him to charter a 15-passenger plane to take a first-hand look at Delta poverty the following day. I was one of the fortunate few Bobby invited to accompany him, having been with him at a small private dinner hosted by a Jackson friend the previous night.
Word got out quickly to the networks of Kennedy's Delta tour and next day several national reporters including the legendary Dan Schorr (then with CBS) picked up our group not long after we landed in Cleveland and were met by cars arranged for by anti-poverty groups.
Unforgettable at the end of the day was the sea of mostly black folks that surrounded a bone-weary Robert Kennedy when he arrived unannounced in Clarksdale to catch a plane to Memphis and then back home. Elderly and young blacks alike reached out just to touch his clothing, pleading with him to speak. Yielding to their pleas, the shirt-sleeved New York senator hopped onto the roof of a black sedan and promised the crowd he would not forget them back in Washington. An assassin's bullet on June 8, 1968 would leave that promise unfulfilled.
A year before his historic Delta hunger tour, Kennedy made a triumphant speaking appearance at Ole Miss, the institution whose campus was torn apart in a riotous Sept. 30, 1962 confrontation between Gov. Ross Barnett and the John Kennedy Administration over the admission of Negro James Meredith. In the lead-up to the showdown, most white Mississippians regarded Barnett as a hero and Robert Kennedy, as his brother's Attorney General, Barnett's ruthless antagonist.
Weeks after the campus riot, however, Mississippi public opinion began to change when secret taped conversations emerged revealing Barnett offered the Kennedys a deal to save his face by standing aside when federal marshals would draw pistols aimed at him.
The Ole Miss Law School invited Kennedy to speak in April, 1966, at a time RFK was still widely hated across the state—an invitation that triggered another internal split within the state College Board, the university's governing body. Biloxian Gerald Blessey, then a Law senior, who initiated the Kennedy invitation, recalls that the Board threatened to block RFK's appearance, and only voted 5-4 not to rescind the invitation after Chancellor J. D. Williams and Law School dean Joshua Morse vowed to resign if Kennedy's appearance was withdrawn.
The enthusiastic response Kennedy got from 5000 students who packed the school's coliseum (I was there), Blessey (later Biloxi's mayor and for 10 years a progressive state legislator) says “was not only a great occasion, but also a big breakthrough that our generation was no longer controlled by the thinking of the Barnett generation.”
Notably that day, Kennedy, only after being pushed by student questioners, recounted the pistol-drawing charade with Barnett. A barrage of laughter and whistles arose from students when he told that Barnett said “they (the pistols) won't be loaded, will they?”
The APWR (Americans for Preservation of the White Race), the predecessor of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, threatened to demonstrate on the campus, but were a no-show. Robert Kennedy's legacy lives on in America and in Mississippi many are thankful he met and touched our people.
Bill Minor, a syndicated columnist, has been covering Mississippi politics for more than 50 years.