Haunting Echoes from RFK's Delta Visit.By Overby Fellow, Curtis Wilkie
Fifty years after Robert Kennedy’s dramatic tour to witness the devastation of poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta his trip is still being remembered and setting off repercussions.
Five years ago the Overby Center hosted civil rights icon Marian Wright Edelman for a program about the journey that turned Kennedy into a passionate defender of the poor in America and led Edelman, then a young lawyer fighting segregation in Mississippi for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, to become the nation’s chief advocate for disadvantaged children as president of the Children’s Defense Fund. It was Edelman who challenged Kennedy and other senators on a committee studying poverty to come to Mississippi and see the situation for themselves in the spring of 1967.
This July, Edelman returned to the region with an entourage of activists in the state and a larger press corps than that which accompanied RFK on the original trip. Her purpose was to again call national attention to the Delta and to problems she believes are being met with indifference by Mississippi’s political leadership and the administration of President Trump. At her last stop in Marks, she declared it was “absolutely disgraceful” for children to grow up impoverished in the richest nation on earth, at a time when the state government refuses to take advantage of expanded Medicaid assistance and other organizations fail to apply for funds to support summer feeding programs for children.
For the few of us still living who followed the 1967 expedition by Kennedy, there were haunting echoes across a half-century of political and social struggle -- and evidence that the fight for equity goes on in spite of moves by the state and federal government to cut back on programs to help the poor.
Edelman invited Hodding Carter 3 rd , who had been a young editor of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, and me – a youthful reporter in 1967 for the Clarksdale Press Register -- to accompany her group. Not as journalists this time, but as friends of her work. (With the death of Bill Minor this past spring, I believe Hodding and I are the only survivors of a group of about a dozen reporters who made the RFK trip.)
As we made our way from an overnight stop in Greenwood up through the Delta to Glendora, Jonestown and Marks some scenes seemed unchanged. Miles of unbroken cotton and soybean fields, were verdant this year because of heavy rain. In places there is another crop – corn -- that was practically invisible here fifty years ago. The Delta also appears to be gripped by a new emptiness. Many white people have abandoned the region, taking their wealth with them. The presence of African-Americans is diminished, too. Those who once worked and lived on the land have retreated to little rural communities or left the state altogether. Yet poverty endures.
Passing a privately-operated penitentiary in Tallahatchie County, Edelman was scornful of a society more interested in investing in prisons than in people. Along the way, she met with local residents and encouraged them to keep up their labors on behalf of beleaguered health clinics, food banks and educational programs. Before she left the state, Edelman delivered a ringing call to arms to a large crowd gathered at a high school in Marks, urging them to vote out of office those determined “to destroy the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and the CHIP program.”
Now 78, Edelman succeeded in attracting notice. Journalists helped fill her bus, and she was accompanied by vans carrying television crews and documentary teams. There was plenty of coverage, and I allow myself to be hopeful some good will come of it. Still, I wonder about its long-term effect in a state that seems resistant to such initiatives.
A mythology grew up around Kennedy’s experience in the Delta. Just as his brother had been confronted by destitute poverty in the mining towns of West Virginia during his 1960 presidential campaign and evolved into a champion of programs designed to lift the poor, Bob Kennedy was said to have left Mississippi with a commitment to use his influence to ensure that hunger could be eliminated in America. Edelman recalled that he had been “deeply moved and outraged” by what he saw here.
I’d like to think Kennedy departed the state with an appreciation that he had allies in Mississippi; a knowledge that not everyone here was part of the political apparatus that had fought him and his brother so desperately in the battle over James Meredith’s admission as a student at Ole Miss in 1962. RFK had been warmly and enthusiastically welcomed to the campus for a speech in 1966. Invited by the law school student body, Kennedy proved to be so popular that his speech was moved to the Tad Smith Coliseum to accommodate the crowd. A year later he stood out as the most enthusiastic member of the Senate delegation that came to Mississippi after testimony in Washington by a young attorney named Marian Wright. She advanced the trip and met a Kennedy aide named Peter Edelman –part of a cadre of young RFK staff members who were pushing the senator to the left on domestic issues and opposition to the Vietnam War. She married Edelman a year later, moved to Washington and created the Children’s Defense Fund.
Following Kennedy’s visit to the Delta there was a burst from government and private circles to address hunger. This took place, of course, during the decade of the “War on Poverty.” Interest seemed to wither away within a few years of Kennedy’s death, but his travel to the land that historian James Cobb calls “the most Southern place on earth” continues to hold a fascination.
Twenty years ago, a progressive Democratic senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, made a well-publicized trip to the Delta to emulate Kennedy’s travels and to revive the subjects of poverty and hunger. As a reporter for the Boston Globe, I covered Wellstone’s trip, too. He started in Tunica and progressed southward to Cleveland and catfish country around Belzoni. Wellstone had the best of intentions, but like Kennedy, he was doomed not to live long enough to see any real fruits from his efforts. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002.
Ellen Meacham, a member of the journalism faculty at Ole Miss, has also been intrigued for years by the Delta’s role in radicalizing Bob Kennedy, in rebranding him from his image as a privileged figure who once worked for witch-hunting Joe McCarthy in the 1950s to the man who embraced striking farm workers in California in the months before he died in Los Angeles in 1968. Ellen was part of the press contingent on the bus this year. She is writing a book about the impact that single day in the Delta had on Robert Kennedy as well as on the people with whom he visited. The book will be published next spring. It will be called “Delta Epiphany.” That seems a perfect title.
Meacham, Lack: Trump is in his element dealing with news media
UNIVERSITY – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham and NBC News chairman Andy Lack said Friday that President Donald Trump’s long experience with TV and New York tabloids was used deftly by him to curry favor with voters in “real America” who were not covered closely by the news media.
“He doesn’t hate the media, and he doesn’t hate the news world at all, fake news notwithstanding,” said Lack. “He actually loves it. He can’t get enough of it. He is just a creature of TV.”
Said Meacham: “He knows our (news media) DNA. He knows the press by and large is like second graders at a soccer game ... everyone chases the ball and nobody stays in position.”
Their comments came in an engaging hour-long conversation at the University of Mississippi presented by Mississippi Today and sponsored by the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics and the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
In May of 2016, Meacham and Lack, separately sat down for conversations with Trump in Trump Tower. Their observations of him from those talks permeated the first half hour of the conversation.
“He spent the first half hour talking about another politician and an actor who was replacing him on The Apprentice ... Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Lack. “We talked about the possibility that Arnold’s ratings might be worse than his for about 45 minutes.”
The point is, Lack said, Trump “knew every detail there was to know about the ratings.” He used that knowledge and parlayed that with his willingness to engage with the news media, he said.
“We got criticism in the media … You elected Trump because you never stopped covering his rallies. You never stopped putting him on TV,” Lack noted.
He said the reality was the news media didn’t actually do that as much as many thought.
“The point was he was so accessible and he wanted to tell his story,” Lack said. Hillary did not. … It was very difficult, very challenging to get her to do anything.”
“He is a cable news addict, literally,” noted Meacham.
Lack noted a comment by Meacham this week in which he said Trump “is not about the art of the deal, he is about the art of the headline.”
Lack did some self-reflection on the role of the media.
“I think the biggest story that we missed, certainly NBC, we underestimated the dislike of Hillary in the country,” said Lack. “The skepticism was so deep, and I think particularly if you were in the bubble in New York or Hollywood, you just had no idea, and we didn’t cover that well.”
If the press failed to convey Trump’s real chances of winning the presidency, it was due to lack of coverage of his voters, said Lack.
Meacham disagreed to a point. He noted that over the past 50 years the American public’s confidence in Washington has declined from 77 percent to 17 percent today, or from three out of four having confidence that the political and governmental institutions in Washington will do the right thing to less than one and five having that confidence today.
“There’s nobody in America at least who’s remotely swayable who didn’t know what we were getting with the 45th President,” said Meacham. “To some extent the country looked at Washington and said if you’re going to act like a reality TV show, we’re going to send you a reality TV show.”
When visiting Trump Tower last May, Meacham said he noticed a family of three —mother, father, and son — walk through the revolving doors. He said the son asked his father,”Do you think he (Trump) goes through the door we just came in?”
The father replied,”Oh no, I bet he has a secret entrance.” Meacham said, which left the boy in total awe, as if Trump was a heroic figure like Batman, coming to save the day.
“It was a small moment; it should’ve triggered something more profound in me,” said Meacham.
Lack is the founder of Mississippi Today and is on the company’s Board of Directors. Meacham is on Mississippi Today’s Advisory Board and was the commencement speaker at the University of Mississippi on Saturday.
Meacham and Lack both talked about the importance of a president’s characteristics and how it factors into the presidency.
During that sit down, Meacham said he admired Trump for his honesty.
“I walk in the room and he says, ‘It’s an honor to be interviewed by you. I’ve never read any of your books, but you’re great on TV,’ ” said Meacham. “And I appreciated the candor.”
“What Secretary Clinton would have said is ‘Oh I read your book on ‘x’ and it changed my view on ‘y’ and she would have been lying and I would have known she was lying.”
Meacham noted that in the White House, all presidents are surrounded by portraits of former presidents and in the workspaces are pictures of themselves.
“The president’s see as they wish to be seen and they live in a house of history,” said Meacham. “They live in a reinforcing sophistic atmosphere, so we wonder why they’re all crazy.”
Noting Trump’s recent comments that President Andrew Jackson had he lived long enough could have prevented the Civil War, Lack sought a response from Meacham, whose biography of Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House) earned Meacham the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
As Meacham noted that Trump told him in their conversation that he had cancelled a golf match to binge watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War on Netflix “which is so improbable and think it is probably true, said Meacham.
“He said to me in that interview last year that he felt the civil war could’ve been over with,” said Meacham. “There was a deal to have been struck.”
So Meacham said he thinks Trump’s love of the mythology of Andrew Jackson collided with his own confidence of himself as a deal maker that he blurted out the comment that Jackson “could have stopped the Civil War.”
Otis Sanford Talks Memphis Racial Politics
Otis Sanford, a long-time columnist for the Commercial Appeal, was at the Overby Center on April 24, to talk about the racial conflict and transition that has taken place in Memphis politics, from the time of E.H. Crump’s rule of the city in the first half of the 20th century to the modern era where African-Americans exert power.
Sanford has written about the subject in his new book, “From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics.”
Mississippi's Free State of Jones
A rebellion against the Confederacy by poor white farmers in Jones County loyal to the Union, joined by a few former slaves, led to the establishment of the “Free State of Jones” during the Civil War. These series of events were the focus of a discussion on April 10, by two prominent Jones County natives, retired U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering and Jones County Junior College history instructor and leading authority on the insurgency Wyatt Moulds, and Charles Overby, chairman of the host Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.
The uprising in Jones County has been the subject of several books and was dramatized last year in a movie, “The Free State of Jones,” starring Matthew McConaughey in the role of Newton Knight, the leader of a guerrilla operation that succeeded in seizing control of part of the county. The breakaway movement eventually failed, but with the defeat of the Confederacy and the implementation of Reconstruction in the South, Knight continued to led an interracial struggle in the southeast Mississippi county.
Moulds has been a member of the faculty at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville since 1982, served as an advisor to Gary Ross, the director of the film, and is considered a leading authority on the subject of Knight’s insurgency.
Mississippians Say The Strangest Things
David Crews, the chief clerk for the U.S. District Courts in North Mississippi was at the Overby Center on March 27, to talk about his collection of intriguing – and sometimes odd – quotes from Mississippians. Crews, an Oxford resident and a bona fide renaissance man, enjoys a statewide reputation as a raconteur and an authority on many things "Mississippi."
Crews began his talk by referencing the programme header.
"That's not really accurate," he said, "The title should be: Mississippians say the most insightful, heartfelt, treacherous, wicked, humorous, absurd, poignant, powerful, and strange things.
"My book is an attempt through powerful words, lyrics, insights, and stories to more fully explore and understand Mississippi."
“David collects quotes the way some guys collect baseball cards,” said Overby. “Mississippians are great at talking and David has put together comments that are inspiring, outrageous and funny. The stories he tells behind the quotes are fascinating.”
Over the years, Crews saved quotes from politicians and writers as well as musicians and athletes. The book contains 65 categories of over 2,000 quotes from more than 300 hundred different Mississippians.
"There are two lines that sum up why I put this book together," said Crews. "The first is from Ms. Eudora Welty, who wrote: "One place understood helps us understand all places better." And Mississippi, I think is worth struggling to understand. Sometimes it is a struggle.
"And without a doubt I think this collection helps us better understand Mississippi from the perspective of our best writers, musicians, playwrights, artists, storytellers, and others," he said.
The second quote comes from Beth Henley's play Crimes of the Heart:
"It's a human need. To talk about our lives. It's an important human need."
"And without a doubt Mississippians love to talk," Crews said, "to weave stories, to write, to sing. It is in our DNA.
Revisiting Jefferson Davis and J. Z. George: U.S. Capitol Relics?
Should Mississippi still be represented in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall by two 19th century figures who were prominent in the secessionist movement? Or is it time for the state to honor more modern 20th century leaders?
Overby Center chairman Charles Overby, William “Brother” Rogers, president of the Mississippi Historical Society, and Marvin King, associate professor of political science and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi came together to discuss the matter.
Each state is allowed to select two people to be honored with statues in the U.S. Capitol. Eighty-six years ago the Mississippi legislature chose Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and George, who signed the ordinance of secession. After the civil war, George became chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court before serving 16 years in the U.S. Senate.
“There is no question that Davis and George were political leaders from Mississippi in the 19th century,” Overby said. “The question is whether there are 20th century Mississippians equally or more deserving to represent Mississippi today. Mississippi has an impressive list of accomplished 20th century citizens worthy of consideration. They range from Senator John Stennis to authors William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to civil rights leader Medgar Evers, along with many others.”
The Assault on the Media (02/17/17)
Four prominent veteran Mississippi journalists discussed the growing hostility to the press in a panel discussion here at the Overby Center.
The program is set in a time when news media credibility seems to be at a low ebb nationally. Meanwhile, Mississippi journalists trying to report on state government are increasingly meeting strong resistance from more secretive elected officials.
The panel included veteran Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, whose work helped send several former Ku Klux Klansmen to prison, Marshall Ramsey, the Clarion-Ledger cartoonist, Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and Kate Royals, the award-winning education reporter for Mississippi Today. Overby Fellow Bill Rose served as moderator.
"Journalism is about truth and we will never ever give up that right," said Agnew.
"You have to be persistent and willing to do what it takes," said Mitchell.
How Deep is Mississippi's Commitment to Education? (02/10/17)
The Overby Center's spring semester programmes began on one of the most controversial issues in the state. It featured Rep. Jay Hughes, an Oxford Democrat who has been outspoken in his criticism of the administration and the legislature’s approach to education, and Bracey Harris, an education reporter for the Clarion-Ledger.
Using a slogan “It ALL starts with education” for his frequent emails to constituents and other interested parties, the first-term legislator has closely tracked bills involving educational issues and sharply faulted a new formula devised by a New Jersey firm hired by the Republican leadership to determine levels of state aid for various school districts in the state.
ABOUT THE OVERBY CENTER
The Overby Center for Southern Journalism & Politics’ mission is to create better understanding of the media, politicians and the role of the First Amendment in our democracy. The Center is funded through a $5 million grant from the Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to educating people about the importance of a free press and the First Amendment.
The Overby Center features programs, multimedia displays and writings which examine the complex relationships between the media and politicians - past, present and future. The Overby Center pays special attention to Southern perspectives.
Adjacent to the newly renovated journalism department facility at Farley Hall, the Overby Center is a new building that features 16,000 square feet of conference space. It includes a 225-seat auditorium, a multipurpose conference room that will accommodate 100 people for seminars and dinners, and a boardroom seating up to 24 people.
The center has state-of-the-art technology and video throughout the building, including a news wall with nine large-screen TV monitors for showing live news programs and current front pages from 12 Southern states.
The center is named for Charles L. Overby, editor of the Daily Mississippian at Ole Miss from 1967-1968. Overby was the CEO of the Freedom Forum and Newseum until his retirement in 2012.