The drama on the U.S.-Mexico border the last few weeks has eerie echoes from a half-century ago, when then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy went to Mississippi.
What he saw — brutal poverty, especially among children — sparked what historian and author Ellen Meacham calls a "Delta Epiphany."
In our Friday Conversation, Meacham tells KERA's Rick Holter about Kennedy’s experiences in Mississippi the year before his presidential campaign and tragic assassination.
Interview Highlights: Ellen Meacham
On why this trip was an epiphany for Kennedy
It took the ideas of things like poverty and discrimination from the abstract to the concrete. Kennedy had faces to put with these policies and I think that was part of what he just couldn't shake. He kept talking about what he saw in Mississippi all the way up until about five minutes before he died.
On the danger the trip imposed
It was this undercurrent of violence and death that was just always there. The people there knew, both black and white, the potential of violence. One of the children that I interviewed who was 9 or 10, she was terrified for Robert Kennedy because she felt like he was going to be killed while he was in Mississippi because she'd seen that.
The Klan met Robert Kennedy at the airport and passed out pamphlets predicting his death. When he landed in Greenville, somebody else was passing out a little headline of a right-wing newspaper that said, "Robert Kennedy Will Die." There was this sense that danger lurked around every corner.
On similarities between Mississippi and the border crisis
As human beings, we're wired to respond to children crying. One of the things that is also interesting, is how Kennedy approached it, versus how the discussion is going right now in most places. Kennedy, unlike many of today's politicians and leaders, left room for his opponents to change their mind and save a little face. He could have called everybody "baby starvers" and called them out, but he didn't. He talked about ideas, not people: These are children, and if children are hungry, we should feed them. He invited people, saying, "It's never too late to change your mind if you think that we need to fix this — come help us."
Interview responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were born worlds apart, but they died within months of each other in 1968. A new exhibition at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas explores their shared interests in civil rights, poverty and the Vietnam War. It runs through Sept. 3.