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Hunger 'hurt so bad': How Robert Kennedy learned about poverty from a boy in the Delta

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent

CLEVELAND, Miss. — It’s been a long time since Charlie Dillard went to bed hungry, but he still chokes up thinking about it. Growing up poor in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s, there were days when he and his eight brothers and sisters had only a slice of cornbread or a spoonful of syrup apiece, and that was it.

Sometimes there was no food at all, and he would go to bed face down on the dusty floor of his grandparents’ old shotgun house pressing his hollow belly into the wood hoping it would somehow ease the sharp pains of hunger that pulsed through his skinny body and kept him up at night.

“It hurt so bad. I would just lay there and cry,” Dillard recalled, his arms reflexively grabbing at his stomach as he spoke of the nights he went to bed without eating. Now 60, he still finds the memory of those days vivid and difficult to talk about. “You never forget what it’s like to be hungry,” he said, his voice thick and eyes wet with tears. “It stays with you.”

Charlie Dillard in his home in Winstonville, Miss. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Dillard’s mother was a farm worker. She picked cotton, soybeans and vegetables, depending on the season. And like many black children in the Delta at the time, Dillard was often with her, working 12-hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., for five dollars a day. He only sporadically attended school. When he wasn’t in the fields, he and his siblings were doing odd jobs — mowing lawns or raking leaves for white families on the other side of town — anything to help make ends meet. His father was out of the picture, so it was up to the whole family to work to survive.

But in 1967, jobs were hard to find in the Delta, especially for blacks. Farmers were increasingly turning to machines to harvest and process their crops, eliminating the need for manual labor. Dillard’s mother had gone to Florida in search of work, leaving her children behind in circumstances that seemed to grow more desperate by the day. His grandparents didn’t have enough money or food to take care of all the kids, a group that had grown to include some of his cousins. On any given night, there were 15 people or more, mostly children, crammed into a tiny three-room shack where there was no heat or air conditioning.

One Tuesday afternoon in April 1967, when Dillard was just 9, he was playing outside with his siblings when he saw a crowd of people walking up the street. He stopped and stared. He had never seen anything like it. There were men with giant television cameras on their shoulders, and while there were a couple of blacks, most in the group were white, which was unusual because white people rarely came to their blighted part of town with its unpaved streets and decrepit homes.

Slideshow: ‘A terrible reflection on our society’: Robert Kennedy sees poverty up close >>>

Suddenly, a white man in a dark suit emerged from the crowd and made a beeline for Dillard and his siblings. To boy’s surprise, the man walked up and offered his hand — an unusual gesture at the time in racially charged Mississippi. The man introduced himself as Robert Kennedy — a name that didn’t mean much to Dillard, who didn’t have a television. Only later did he learn that the man was the brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, a former attorney general and a U.S. senator from New York.

“He was the first white person I ever shook hands with,” Dillard recalled.

Glancing over the kids, who were filthy and dressed in tattered, ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Kennedy had a somber air about him. He spoke quietly, asking Dillard why he wasn’t in school. The child explained that he wasn’t enrolled. Looking distressed, Kennedy asked the boy what he had eaten that day. “Molasses,” Dillard replied.

In Cleveland, Miss., 15 of the Dillard children lived in one house with their mother and grandparents when Robert F. Kennedy visited in 1967. Charlie Dillard, at far left, was 9 years old. (Photo: Dan Guravich)

As Dillard walked up the wooden steps of the house to go inside and tell his grandmother about their visitors, Kennedy and his entourage followed. Inside the house, the senator questioned the woman about what she had fed the kids that day. Just bread and syrup, she replied. And they wouldn’t eat again until the evening because there just wasn’t enough food. The cupboards were empty. “I can’t hardly feed ’em but twice a day,” the woman told Kennedy, who could not conceal his shock.

As he turned to go, Kennedy, a father of 10 at the time, including a boy just three weeks old, smiled sadly at Dillard and his siblings. He touched their heads and gently caressed their cheeks. They looked up at him with sad, worried eyes. “It wasn’t like a politician kissing babies,” said Ellen Meacham, a University of Mississippi journalism professor and author of “Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi.” “He touched those children as if they were his own.”

Kennedy had been working on poverty issues back in New York. He had toured through slums in Harlem to call attention to the ineffectiveness of welfare programs at the time and had worked to spur the redevelopment of the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. He had visited poverty stricken Native American reservations and toured poor areas of Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities. He had vowed to improve life in what the writer and activist Michael Harrington called “the other America” — where Americans lived with inadequate housing, poor schools and no hope.

Traveling abroad, the senator had seen poverty and hunger first hand in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. But as his longtime aide Peter Edelman recalled, Kennedy seemed more shaken by what he had seen in Mississippi. He was disturbed to see so many children suffering in a way they weren’t in other places stricken by poverty.

“I remember he came out of one of the houses, and he was just … he couldn’t believe it. He told me this was worst poverty he had ever seen, worse than anything he’d ever seen in a Third World country,” Edelman recalled. “That might have been a little bit of an overstatement, but it was shocking to see that in the United States. He couldn’t stop thinking of those hungry kids, those children in rags and [with] swollen bellies and running sores on their arms and legs that wouldn’t heal. It was horrific.”

Attorney General Robert Kennedy visiting a summer reading program in Harlem, N.Y., August 1963. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Speaking to a reporter from CBS News who was traveling with him in Mississippi, Kennedy said he believed the nation had been blind to hunger and other problems facing low-income Americans. “I think it’s a terrible reflection on our society,” Kennedy said. “We are not doing what we should be doing in the country to deal with this problem.”

The issue “lit a fire” in Kennedy, according to Edelman, and ultimately became a driving force in his political career. When Kennedy announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination a year later, in March 1968, he made the eradication of poverty a key theme of his campaign, along with ending the war in Vietnam. But on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was shot dead by an assassin in Los Angeles, just minutes after he had claimed victory in the California primary.

Fifty years later, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination remains a defining moment in American history, as well as an inconceivable loss for a famous family that had already suffered profound tragedy and would endure more in generations to come. Decades later, many Americans continue to mourn the loss of an admired political figure whose potential was never realized.

Slideshow: Mississippi Delta: Still the heart of poverty >>>

And the anniversary of his death is a reminder that poverty as an issue has been largely dropped from the national political discourse. Although candidates such as John Edwards and John McCain embarked on so-called poverty tours during their respective White House bids, and President Donald Trump talked about his focus on the “forgotten men and woman” of the nation, Kennedy was the last major political candidate to make ending poverty a key issue in his campaign — even though the problem has hardly faded away.

In the Mississippi Delta, the communities Kennedy visited 51 years ago are still struggling with poverty, a lack of good jobs, substandard schools and little access to basic necessities such as health care and even grocery stores. And there is a disheartening feeling among people here that many Americans simply don’t care about them — at least not the way Kennedy did.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with his wife Ethel, announces he will be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from New York, August 1964. (Photo: Bob Schutz/AP)

Robert F. Kennedy was two years into his first term as a U.S. senator from New York when he visited the Mississippi Delta. At the time, many were already eying him as a presidential candidate, someone who could carry on his brother’s political legacy. But at that moment, Kennedy was trying to carve out his own political identity. Still grieving over his brother’s assassination, he threw himself into trying to make a change in issues that he cared about.

Although many accounts hold that Kennedy’s interest in poverty arose after his brother’s death, former aides link it to work he did as attorney general on juvenile delinquency in the early 1960s. Kennedy believed delinquency was a product of economic inequality, linked in part to the racial tension that was beginning to erupt all over the nation.

Elected to the Senate in 1964, Kennedy, who had primarily lived in Virginia, got to know New York by asking local reporters to take him to communities most in need. The issue of poverty wasn’t a foreign subject to Americans. That January, just months after JFK’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson had used his first State of the Union address to respond to the nation’s 19 percent poverty rate — a record at the time — by proposing legislation that would expand the federal government’s role in health care and education to help the disadvantaged. He called his legislative plan “the War on Poverty.”

But Kennedy, while generally supportive of LBJ’s efforts, became increasingly concerned they weren’t doing enough to help those most in need. In March 1967, Marion Wright, a 27-year-old civil rights attorney for the NAACP, testified before Congress about starving farm workers and their families in the Mississippi Delta — a state where the all-white congressional delegation made up of pro-segregation Democrats had resisted federal funding for food and education programs that would have primarily helped poor blacks. She urged lawmakers to come see the crisis for themselves. A month later, Kennedy and several other members of the Senate subcommittee on employment, labor and poverty traveled to Jackson, Miss., for a day of hearings on poverty programs in the region.

But for Kennedy, the hearings weren’t enough. The senator, who still viewed issues through the eyes of a federal prosecutor looking to prove a case, asked Wright and his aides to take him to the Delta so he could see the evidence of what was happening on the ground for himself. The following morning, while most of his Senate colleagues flew back to Washington, he and Sen. Robert Clark, a fellow Democrat from Pennsylvania, flew to Greenville, near the southern tip of the Delta, where they began touring communities most deeply in need.

Marian Wright, an attorney for the NAACP legal defense fund, in 1967. (Photo: Henry Griffin/AP)

Though the local officials he traveled with had planned where to take him, Kennedy often ordered the entourage to pull over for unscheduled stops so that he could talk to families at random. He didn’t simply want to rely on what his tour guides wanted to show him. “It was more like a fact-finding mission,” Meacham said. “He was much more interested in finding the truth of the matter and connecting with people than creating a photo op.”

The statistics were dire. In 1967 — as it is today — Mississippi was the poorest state in the country. More than 54 percent of the state lived below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census — which back then calculated the poverty level as a family of four living on a little over $3,300 a year (around $25,000 in current dollars). In the Delta, the numbers were even worse — with the poverty rate averaging between 60 and 70 percent in the 20 counties that make up the region.

For hours, Kennedy and his entourage traveled by car from one dusty town to another, visiting families who lived in terrible conditions. The senator peeked in refrigerators and cupboards, often finding them empty. He quizzed adults on whether they had heard of any of the government assistance programs created as part of the War on Poverty — and many had not. But it was the children he was most moved by.

In Cleveland, he asked the television people to wait outside while he, Wright and Edelman went into a darkened home. Inside, they found a small baby on the dirty floor, listlessly picking at scattered pieces of rice and cornbread — the day’s meal. As Meacham recounts in her book, Kennedy became fixated on the child, who wasn’t much younger than his son Max, who had just turned 2. Kennedy ignored the stench of the open toilet in one corner of the room and despite the sores on the baby’s arms and legs crouched on the dusty floor, trying to coax a response from the dazed child, whose belly was swollen from malnourishment. Kennedy touched the boy’s face and cheeks again and again, softly saying, “Baby … hi, baby.”

According to Edelman, Kennedy tried for at least five minutes to get some reaction from the child, but the baby never acknowledged him or made a sound. “It was an incredibly awful but powerful moment,” he said.

And one that proved to be transformative for Kennedy. After hours driving north through the Delta, the senator wrapped up his trip with a visit to a community center in Clarksdale, where he was mobbed by hundreds of people, mostly black. Standing atop a car, Kennedy bid the crowd goodbye by encouraging students to stay in school and not to ignore the struggles of others around them. “The problems of poverty are problems of all United States citizens,” he said. “We need to make that effort together.”

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy near Greenville, Miss., in April 1967. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

Hours later, Kennedy arrived back at Hickory Hill, his family’s stately brick home in the rolling countryside of McLean, Va. It was his wife Ethel’s birthday, and she and the kids had stayed up late to welcome the senator back from Mississippi.

But as Kennedy crossed the threshold to the dining room, where his family awaited, his kids later recalled how their father had suddenly halted, looking anguished as he surveyed his opulent home and his happy, healthy children. It was a stark contrast to what he’d seen in Mississippi earlier in the day. “He looked haunted and started talking to me, shaking his head in distress as he described the people he’d met in the Delta,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his oldest daughter, who would later serve as the lieutenant governor of Maryland, wrote in the New York Times. “‘I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room,’ he told me. ‘The children’s stomachs were distended and had sores all over them. They were starving.’ He was outraged that this could happen in the world’s richest country.”

The senator slammed his fist on the table and looked around at his children, who sat stunned at their father’s outburst. “Do you know how lucky you are?” Kennedy asked them. “Do you know how lucky you are? You have a great responsibility. Do something for these children. Do something for our country.”

In Clarksdale, Kennedy had stood atop a car, vowing he would not forget the people of the Mississippi Delta. And he did not. He moved quickly to make differences where he could, including getting meals to the struggling families. He called wealthy friends and charity organizations, soliciting help. Within hours of Kennedy’s visit, food showed up at his grandparents’ house, Dillard recalled. Not much later, after images of Kennedy’s visit had aired on national television, the city of Cleveland suddenly decided to pave the roads in his neighborhood and throughout the poor black section of town. “I think they were probably shamed or something,” Dillard said.

The morning after he arrived back in Washington, Kennedy and Clark began lobbying the Agriculture Department to get additional food aid into the Delta — a push that federal officials initially resisted. Among other things, he successfully argued for changes in the food stamp program, which was then operating as a pilot program. Under the old policy, individuals had been required to buy food stamps, but Kennedy successfully lobbied to expand the program to allow families with no income to qualify for assistance.

Robert Kennedy and his aide, Peter Edelman (in glasses, behind Kennedy), visited several homes in Cleveland and found “awfully bare cupboards.” (Photo: Dan Guravich)

The senator petitioned private groups for help. The Field Foundation sent doctors to investigate medical conditions in the Delta and confirmed reports of malnourishment. Meanwhile, the Senate held fiery hearings on the plight of the Delta. Embarrassed by the revelations about the struggles of poor blacks in his state, Sen. John Stennis, who had initially suggested that Kennedy had exaggerated his interactions in the Delta, set up a $10 million emergency fund for food and medical help for impoverished residents in his state.

Eventually, the federal government would dramatically expand its aid programs into the region, including offering school lunches. But Kennedy saw the need for more transformative change. He didn’t believe the solution to the Delta’s problems could be solved by government alone. As he had in Brooklyn, he pressed for community partnerships and incentives that would help attract skilled jobs to the region, offering residents hope and opportunity. But those efforts ended with his death a little over a year later.

Fifty-one years after Kennedy’s visit to Mississippi, it is a region that continues to struggle. Twenty-two percent of the state lives below the poverty level — about 10 points higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Census. But in the Delta, the rates are much higher — ranging between 30 and 40 percent on average. The region has some of the highest child poverty rates in the nation. While roughly 25 percent of Mississippians under the age of 18 live in poverty, the number skyrockets to nearly 50 percent in counties that make up the Delta.

“You can go out in the Delta today and still find children in desperate situations, but the poverty looks different,” Meacham said. “It doesn’t look like the raggedy children that Kennedy saw, who were rail thin or had distended stomachs. You are dealing more with children who are malnourished but are overweight because they aren’t getting the kind of food they need.”

In many parts of the Delta, residents live an hour or more from the nearest grocery store. There is no easy access to fruit or vegetables, even though the region includes some of the most fertile farmland in the country. In some towns, like Marks, a tiny enclave made famous when Martin Luther King Jr. visited during his Poor People’s Campaign, the local grocery store has closed, leaving residents to shop for food at a convenience store. While the poor have more access to federal aid programs that help them buy food to eat, many don’t have cars and struggle to get to supermarkets in a region that does not have reliable public transportation.

Martin Luther King Jr., picked Marks, Miss., the poorest community in the country, as the launch site of his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Fifty years later, the town continues to struggle. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Driving through the Delta, there are obvious signs of poverty — including decrepit buildings that would be considered uninhabitable in other cities but are occupied by families so poor they have nowhere else to go.

Yet few politicians have taken on the challenge of doing something for the nation’s poor, perhaps because the issue presents no easy fix. After Kennedy, a handful of politicians have visited Mississippi to call attention to poverty, including Edwards and Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who traveled the route of the RFK trip in 1997 to promote economic justice. Wellstone said he was hoping, like Kennedy, to force the nation to focus on the “faces of poverty.” “Sometimes you have to do it all over again,” he said. (Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002.)

While presidents have enacted policies that helped the poor — including George W. Bush, who boosted the food stamps program in spite of attempts by his own party to gut it, and Barack Obama, whose health care law included coverage for the poor — national politicians have focused their campaigns more on the middle class than on the poor. That may be because they are more likely to vote. In 2016, Trump frequently said he was running to represent the “forgotten people” in the nation, but his message seemed targeted at working-class voters, not the neediest Americans.

“It’s a very, very difficult subject, and there are no simple answers for what to do,” said Edelman, who married Marion Wright shortly after Kennedy’s death and has continued to work on issues related to poverty. “It’s terrible, but I think for some [politicians], they just find it easier to look the other way.”

In some ways, things haven’t changed. As in the 1960s, Mississippi lawmakers have been resistant to federal help. Though Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, grew up in the Delta, he has said he doesn’t want people to be dependent on government. Under his tenure, Mississippi dismantled an insurance marketplace that had been set up under Obama’s Affordable Care Act. And it was one of 19 states to reject the expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on an antipoverty investigation in the Mississippi Delta, March 1967. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

When new Census data was released in 2016 showing that Mississippi’s poverty rate was again on the rise — one of only four states in the nation where this was happening — Bryant’s office accused local reporters of focusing only on the negative and implied the Obama administration had doctored the numbers “in an obvious attempt to discredit gains that Mississippi has made.”

And though there is more of a safety net in place than when Kennedy visited the state, there are concerns the Trump administration will cut social services that help the poor.

“Mississippi has left a lot of money on the table since 1967 or before because of politics,” Meacham said. “It’s basically the same pattern that was happening in the age of Kennedy.”

But some residents have overcome the extreme poverty of their upbringing. Dillard considers himself one of them. After a childhood that took him through Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina, where he worked with his mother harvesting fruit, vegetables and tobacco to make ends meet, he returned to Mississippi when he was 17, hoping to finish high school. Instead, his grandfather pushed him to work. He got a job with the city of Cleveland, working on a garbage truck. No one asked how old he was. And he didn’t need a degree.

Years later, he would work second shifts at local factories, including at a Tyson chicken plant. But in a story that has come to define the struggles of rural America, that plant and others in the region have closed, taking with them the kind of jobs people need to support a family. While Cleveland has fared better than many towns in the Delta, thanks to the presence of a local university (Delta State), there is a sense among locals that it is hanging by a thread. Just a few factories remain.

“After that, it’s all fast food jobs,” Dillard said. “Who can live on that?”

Around them, those who could afford to move away have done so, to Memphis or to other nearby cities and towns that seem to be doing better. Dillard and his wife, Shirley, now live in Winstonville, a tiny town north of Cleveland. The population used to be around 500 in 1979, when Dillard moved there, but now it’s down about 187 — a community, with no jobs or opportunity, that is slowly fading away.

Winstonville, Miss. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Although he knows life is different since he met Kennedy in 1967, Dillard sometimes wonders if things have really improved that much. “Ain’t nothing better,” he said.

But it is for him. For years, he and his wife worked hard, two jobs each, to support their four kids. He was determined that they would not have the life he did. He forced them to finish school. His two sons now own their own trucking businesses. One daughter is a teacher, planning to get her doctorate in education. The other is a doctor.

He cries talking about his kids. “I worked hard to make sure they would never feel hungry, not like I did,” he said.

Dillard has suffered health problems that his wife believes are related to his malnourishment as a child. But Dillard, who pastors a small local church, did accomplish one of his major goals: He got his GED.

Though he eventually told his wife of his troubled early childhood, Dillard did not give much thought to his fateful meeting with Robert Kennedy until a few years ago. He and his wife were watching PBS when he saw footage of Kennedy and what looked like his grandmother’s house. A few years later, Meacham tracked him down, as she sought to retell the story of Kennedy’s visit to the Delta and how it shaped the final year of his life.

When Kennedy was killed, Dillard was living in Arkansas working with his mother. The senator’s death hit him harder than the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a couple of months before. “I’d seen Robert Kennedy in person. I’d talked to him. I shook his hand. That nice white man, that person I talked to eye to eye,” he recalled. “It hurt me when he was killed. As a kid, I couldn’t understand it. I asked my mama, ‘Why would they kill a nice man like that?’ Nobody had no answers, but when I got to be a man, I knew. They killed him because he was trying to do good.”

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy talks to campaign workers in Los Angeles minutes before he was shot on June 5, 1968. (Photo: Dick Strobel/AP)

(Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jack Thornell/AP, Dan Guravich)

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