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Nancy Smith

Monuments and Statues Aren't the Urgent Conversations on Race We Need

August 19, 2017 - 6:00am

Back in the '60s, I missed a chance to cover a story that haunts me to this day.

It somehow seems appropriate to bring it up now. This year is a 50th anniversary and we're in the shadow of Charlottesville.

While I was working for The Observer in London in 1967, I turned down the chance my editors gave me to join a team covering United States senators visiting the Mississippi Delta.  

My friends had planned a long weekend on the Riviera. I was 24. The gravitas of the moment wasn't foremost on my mind. Mississippi Delta, French Riviera -- French Riviera, Mississippi Delta. Come on, of course I chose my friends and the Med.

But I missed a moment in the history of our country that could have -- that almost -- opened Washington's eyes to America's racial divide.

Marian Wright Edelman -- today the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, back then a 26-year-old lawyer determined to make a difference -- had challenged U.S. senators to get out of their offices and go see hunger and poverty for themselves.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy heard Edelman's call. He went to the Mississippi Delta. He saw homes without food, kids eating scraps off the floor.

Said Jackson State University journalism professor David Hampton, "The late Mississippi journalist Bill Minor said later he thought he had seen poverty, but he never forgot what he experienced that day."

Bobby Kennedy never forgot it either. It impacted him, he talked about it in every speech he made from then until the day he died. It was a major story in The Observer, written by another reporter, sadly, not by me. 

The great wealth of coverage ultimately influenced policy.

But did it effect any real change long-term?

Recently, Edelman and a group of journalists, health care professionals, elected officials and economic developers revisited the Delta. The group included Hodding Carter and Curtis Wilkie. In 1967, Carter covered the Kennedy visit for his family’s paper, the Delta Democrat-Times, and Wilkie for the Clarksdale Press Register.

In a newspaper story, Hampton reported, "They talked about what it was like then and they can tell you what it is like now, and how misguided politics, weak leadership and bad policy create and exacerbate those conditions today." 

Some elected officials in 1967 did not believe there were hungry children in America, he said. Tragically, some elected officials today don’t seem to care.

Food insecurity is only one problem in the Delta. It’s easy to look around the region and see problems of inadequate housing, people without jobs, people just plain struggling.

Sure, there's some progress. The poverty rate that was about 70 percent in 1967 now hovers around 30-40 percent in some Delta counties -- but shame on anyone in this day and age who would call that a real improvement.

What's wrong with us? We're arguing about monuments, for heaven's sake. 

We have all the facts, all the evidence, yet with everything we see and know, somehow we can’t deal with the real problems that divide American society.

We know we should take care of children, feed the hungry, take care of the elderly and provide opportunity and hope and life to those who don’t have it. We know we should insist on -- pay for, tax for, volunteer for -- good schools, whether they're traditional public or charter. 

We should be talking not about tearing down statues, but investing in programs and ideas that protect and educate and lift -- that's the conversation on race relations we need.  Black communities are telling us they need a good education, good jobs, an answer to blacks killing blacks, to blacks brutalized by a law enforcement and legal system in this country that isn't getting better fast enough.

We need to look around, we need to pay attention, that's all I'm saying.

Speaking personally, I will always regret not being there in 1967 to see for myself how close we came to moving the needle of national unity in a positive direction. And I thank David Hampton for not letting us forget. We need to remember the Delta more often and the resolve Marian Wright Edelman was reaching for -- and not allow weak political leadership and apathy to widen the social divide in this country.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

Comments

Nancy, an excellent column!...you're absolutely right...the REAL issues are poverty, hunger, little education, low-paying jobs, killing of self-esteem, and a willingness to accept the status quo...thanks for your comments as they bring us back to what is really important...a need to help people who want to help themselves...who want something better for their children and they're willing to work hard to make it happen

It is unacceptable that there is widespread poverty and hungry children in the greatest country in the world. Until we start being a "Nation under God" again, nothing will change...

Most civil war monuments were erected in the Jim Crow days as a protest to the civil rights movement. They are a sad testimony to the history of this country we should never celebrate. It is shameful that they still stand open for all to see in our "free" country. Washington and Jefferson were admittedly wrong, but neither of them ever fought to preserve a terrible, inhuman practice like southern civil war generals. It's like comparing apples and oranges. At the end of the day wrong is wrong, no matter who says otherwise.

Confederate soldiers are American was veterans. Why do you hate veterans? When are you going to call for the removal of WW II statues?

"misguided politics, weak leadership and bad policy create and exacerbate those conditions today" truer words have never been spoken. ~2nd generation American and granddaughter of an immigrant

The South is better racially integrated than the North or West. We don't have race riots like they do, either, even during Obama's 8 years of race baiting. But just the existence of the KKK gives the Left a reason to be hateful and stereotyping the South, too. I have a remedy for the economic inequality in this country. It's really quite simple. Starting in 1st grade at public schools, after the Pledge of Allegiance, children should recite these words in a simple Cultural Life Lesson: Birth Respect Authority Education Work Monogamy Children Retire Death ... IN THAT ORDER (The above word layout should be embroidered on a banner underneath the American flag and posted in every public school).

In addition many children who eat every day but do not receive adequate nutrition their bodies and brains need to properly develoo either due to ignorance of their parents or inadequate income to provide healthy nutritious food for proper brain development. School breakfasts provided free to poor children helped considerably in the 1960's.

black people, many black people, are also saying we want these statues removed.

Tell it to Al Sharpton (Obama's "mini-me") who visited the White House over a hundred times to plot and plan with Barry Soweto, He's taking your baseless complaints, and taking names.

Taxation is always theft.

During his presidential tenure, Obama set the Civil Rights movement BACK five decades, and also set Martin Luther King "spinning in his grave" at hyper-speed. Obama must, and necessarily WILL, become an ugly memory in America's history. "Occam's Razor": When you hear galloping hooves, think: Horses, NOT Zebras !.... (SAME will apply to U.S. Presidents, think: "Honor & Prestige", NOT Obama's Failure !)

based on what you raving trailer park idiot. What factual basis do you base this on? Move back to NY and get a job...

Hi "pasture breeze" (AKA "Cow Fart"), Morons like you legitimize me. I'm an "anchor baby" here,..taken away during childhood for an education so as not to turn out replicating YOUR ill-educated ignorance. I venture that I've got more productive time in Florida than the entire span of your sad existence on Eatrh.

And are we going to tear down the Washington and Jefferson memorials because both presidents were slave owners. And more damaging to his reputation, Jefferson had a slave concubine named Sally Hemings. And how old was she when they first had relations? My God, even President Obama had slave owning ancestors. None of the current protests do anything to alleviate poverty. If anything, they contribute to it by diverting the protesters from engaging in more productive efforts. But I think President Trump stepped in it when he said there are good people on both sides. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are not "good people."

I couldn't agree with you more that little will be solved by erasing history (no matter how odious), but one need only look at the swastika wearing 'defenders' of Southern heritage in Charlottesville to understand that we are not tearing down memorials to our national heros. Those that will be removed are those of men who renounced their citizenship to defend the interests of slaveholders and who are today icons of racism and bigotry.

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