Fifty years later, civil rights icon Marian Wright Edelman revisits the Delta

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Alex J. Berliner, ABImages via AP

Marian Wright Edelman

Fifty years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy took a tour of the Mississippi Delta to see the poverty there up close. This week, the woman who organized the trip is reliving the tour.

Marian Wright Edelman is the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and a longtime advocate for children’s rights and disadvantaged Americans.

In 1967, she was a 27-year-old NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer in Jackson when she urged Kennedy and the Senate subcommittee panel for War on Poverty programs to “come see for yourselves” the living conditions of Mississippians living in one the nation’s poorest regions.

Today, the unemployment in the 18 counties that make up the Delta remains the highest in Mississippi at 7.1 percent compared to the state rate of 5.3 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security published in May. The Delta is also home to four counties with the highest unemployment rate in the state, including Issaquena County, which has the highest jobless rate in Mississippi.

When Marian Wright and Kennedy visited the region five decades ago, the problems of the Delta were attributed to lack of education and the mechanization of the agriculture industry that left workers, most of them African American, with dim employment prospects. Officials who went on the trip also cited limited access to healthy foods and bad diets that led to poor health for residents of the Delta, according to a New York Times story published after the original tour.

During a bus tour on Wednesday, she will take a tour to re-examine the region’s health, food insecurity and poverty. Edelman will visit the rural communities of Glendora, Jonestown and Marks with quick stops in Quitman, Tallahatchie and Coahoma counties. She’ll be accompanied by some of the same people who were present for the 1967 poverty tour.

Edelman will pay close attention to the impact of proposed federal and state legislation affecting children’s and families’ holistic well-being. On the original tour, Kennedy was stunned at the Delta’s conditions, including hunger and malnourishment, job loss and low incomes, food deserts and failing schools. Edelman’s visit will further illustrate beyond the numbers whether or not the Delta is still poverty stricken, held down by its Jim Crow past.

“We will witness and hear firsthand the progress made in the past 50 years,” said Edelman. “I’m very interested in hearing about the challenges families have and the resources they would need to work their way out of poverty.”