Poverty and Politics
By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
As we all know, unless we’ve been stranded on a desert island for the last 24 months, we are in the midst of an election campaign. The marquee race is for President of the United States; but down ballot elections from the city and county levels up through Governors and members of Congress are taking place across America. There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of talk and a lot of debate. Not all of it is pretty, and some of it quite petty. Issues, real issues, seem to take a back seat to personal attacks, wild speculations, and stage managed speeches to partisan crowds of supporters that provide little or no substance.
In 1967 and 1968 there was another Presidential election coming up. One of the candidates was the younger brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy, then Senator from New York, had been Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, and was widely expected and encouraged to run against Johnson, who was mired in deep unpopularity due to the Vietnam War.
Bobby Kennedy in 1967 and 1968 was not considered to be a policy wonk or a person with a deep committed to issues, especially those of the Democratic Party. He was more known more for service as his brother’s campaign manager and then Attorney General. JFK’s nomination of his brother as Attorney General was controversial. JFK told reporters that he wanted to announce the nomination by opening the door to his Georgetown house at 2am and whispering “It’s Bobby”.
The word that was probably used to describe Bobby Kennedy more than any other was ‘ruthless’. Bobby Kennedy was known as a passionate defender of his brother and someone who you did not want to cross. The left, embracing the candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, had a deep distrust of Bobby Kennedy and opposed him considering a run for the Presidency.
But something changed in Robert F. Kennedy in 1967 and 1968. And that something was his understanding of the issue of poverty and the working poor. As a Senator, Kennedy began an investigation of the impact of coal mining on the people of Appalachia, hunger on children in Mississippi, and farm workers in California. And he didn’t investigate these issues by sitting on his butt in Washington, Dc and holding hearings in the grandeur of the Senate hearing rooms. And he didn’t fly or helicopter in for a photo op and a rally with his supporters to spout platitudes about how things could be changed.
No, Bobby Kennedy visited the poor in their homes. He talked with the farm workers in the fields, he sat on the floor of sharecroppers homes and got to know the children and their parents. And he held hearings in Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachian coal country. And from these personal visits, Bobby Kennedy was fundamentally changed at his core. He developed a deep and personal commitment to change the way this nation addressed issues of poverty and hunger.
We’ll never know what Bobby Kennedy’s passion and ideas would have done to change the lives of the poor in America. Four months after the hearings in KY, he was shot by an assassin in California after winning the Democratic Primary there. He died the next day.
I reflect back on that Presidential campaign of 1968 a lot as I watch the Presidential campaign of 2016. And I ask myself when the Presidential, Senatorial, and other candidates are going to make serious attempts to learn about the issues of poverty, dependence, equity and need in Georgia and everywhere else. When will they really begin to explore what is and what needs to be. Not by spending a few hours at a food pantry handing out food for the press to see them or at a soup kitchen ladling soup for the press cameras? But by talking to those who struggle every day just to make it to the next day; by sitting on the floor of a home in the poverty stricken areas of Atlanta or walking the streets of the communities in North or South Georgia devastated by unemployment and lack of hope. By developing a real and meaningful human to human relationship with those who might make them uncomfortable. When will those who seek to lead us, in every position from top to bottom, learn that to lead ‘us’ you must also be willing to follow ‘us’. And you can do neither without knowledge and understanding of who ‘us’ is. All of ‘us’. Even the marginalized and those without a voice – or a ticket to the next political rally and fundraiser.