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 email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith