Ellen Meacham worked to tell story of children politicians met

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FARMINGTON — A visit by U.S. Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Joseph Clark to the Mississippi Delta in April 1967 to survey living conditions among the children there would not seem to be the kind of event worthy of much attention a half century later.

But the shocking conditions Kennedy and Clark encountered during their visit left such an impression on them — and on many members of the media who accompanied them — that their journey remains etched in the national consciousness today, a striking example of how post-World War II prosperity in America had managed to bypass significant portions of the population.

Ellen Meacham, a veteran Mississippi newspaper reporter and journalism professor, had heard tales of Kennedy's well-chronicled visit to her home state throughout her career. But it wasn't until 2007 that she decided to re-examine what she now describes as a watershed episode in Kennedy's life and look at what kind of impact, if any, it had on the lives of the people he encountered then.

Meacham's work resulted in the publication of her book "Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi" earlier this year. The author will make an appearance at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave., to read excerpts from the book, discuss her research and answer questions from the audience.

"It's more than just a Mississippi book," Meacham said during a telephone interview Tuesday night from her home just outside Oxford, Miss., where she is a faculty member at Ole Miss. "It's really a significant part of his running for president in 1968. It has a resonance outside of Mississippi with the 50th anniversary of his assassination."

The compilation of "Delta Epiphany" was no simple task. Meacham labored for 10 years to research and write the book, focusing much of her attention on tracking down a handful of individuals who were children during Kennedy's visit and who encountered him when the senator visited their homes.

"I didn’t want to write a book about 'St. Bobby comes to Mississippi,'" Meacham said. "It was really important to me to find some of the children he met and find out what happened to them and tell their stories."

Kennedy and Clark had undertaken their trip as part of an examination of federal War on Poverty programs for a Senate subcommittee on which they both served. The largely African-American communities of the Mississippi Delta that they visited were filled with dilapidated homes and children dressed in threadbare clothing who were lucky if they got one poor meal a day.

"Americans were shocked," Meacham said of public reaction to the media reports about the senators' visit. "A lot of Americans remember that trip, even if it was only in the news cycle for a day or two."

But when Meacham began piecing the specifics of their visit together 40 years later, she found it was nearly impossible to track down those children, who were now approaching middle age. That was true even in the digital age when information was much more readily available than it had been a decade earlier.

Meacham found that entire streets where those children had lived had been bulldozed in the interim and most records were sketchy. So she knocked on a lot of doors and followed a lot of threads, engaging in what she calls "shoe leather journalism," before finally managing to track down three of the children and relating how their lives had unfolded.

Those stories are vital to the message behind "Delta Epiphany," she believes.

"They give a face to the economic ups and downs of the last 50 years," she said.

And their faces haunted Kennedy at the time, she noted. The senator was so moved by the wretched living conditions and gnawing hunger he witnessed that the experience largely came to define his politics afterward, Meacham said.

"He practiced a style of leadership not often seen these days," she said, describing his bipartisan appeal. "Once he saw (the conditions) in Mississippi, it took from the abstract of poverty — which is kind of a moving target, a word that means something different to everybody. But if you say hunger, everybody knows what that feels like, even if you're wealthy. He was able to articulate that to everybody."

Kennedy made the effort to fight hunger a centerpiece of his political agenda from that point on, Meacham said. In fact, he was discussing that very subject on the night of June 6, 1968, during a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just minutes before he was felled by an assassin's bullet.

It was that trip to Mississippi that made Kennedy such a strong advocate for hungry people in America, but he likely would have encountered many of the same conditions had he visited Appalachia or one of the hundreds of American Indian reservations across America, Meacham said.

While conditions have improved over the last 50 years, she said, the problems of hunger and poverty persist in pockets across America. Meacham's parents moved to Farmington in the early 2000s, and during several visits here, she has seen many similarities in living conditions between some Mississippians and some New Mexicans.

Those problems go beyond historical challenges, she said, explaining that rural areas around the world are home to populations that are aging and shrinking, where it becomes harder for communities to thrive and to provide necessary services.

Meacham hopes her book gives new breath to the conversation that Kennedy started.

"I would love for us to shift the conversation away from the abstract issue of poverty and toward hungry children," she said. "We need to make sure they get enough to eat. That's just so essential."

Copies of Meacham's book will be available for purchase Thursday night. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1270 or visit infoway.org for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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