50 years after Delta tour, we still struggle to face the challenges

Published 8:03 pm Saturday, August 26, 2017

Given the facts and the right information, people will do the right thing.

I have often said this in speaking to students about the importance of good journalism — reporting that examines and analyzes and helps people reach logical and helpful solutions to the problems we all face. Yes, we differ, we debate, we filter things through our political leanings, but if we look at the facts and we keep our eyes on common goals, we can find solutions.

That’s a pretty basic belief that underlies our democracy. We believe most people will support what is best for the common good. Don’t we?

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I must admit, I have been questioning that lately. I don’t question the good journalism part. Regardless of what you might have heard, good journalism is alive and well and going on every day. Fakes will be fakes, but news is news, facts are facts and truth is truth. I still believe that truth prevails.

But in my more cynical moments, I have questioned whether given the facts, we will do the right thing. Or maybe, we just can’t hear through the noise of the nasty politics of the day, or see through the self-centered walls with which we surround ourselves. After all, as Paul Simon says, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

What is disturbing is that the problems are still there and policies are being shaped that, I am afraid, not only fail to address them, but stand to make them worse.

I was fortunate recently to be able to participate in a trip to the Mississippi Delta with Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. It was Ms. Edelman, who as a 26-year-old lawyer in 1967 challenged United States senators to get out of their offices and go see hunger and poverty for themselves.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy took her up on the offer. He came to the Mississippi Delta. He saw homes without food, kids eating scraps off the floor. 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 couldn’t forget it either. It impacted him and ultimately influenced policy.

Edelman and a group of journalists, health care professionals, elected officials and economic developers revisited the Delta recently. The group included well-known Mississippi journalists and authors 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. They talked of 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.

Remarkably, some elected officials in 1967 did not believe there were hungry children in America. 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 Delta and see problems of inadequate housing, people without jobs, and people struggling.

Yes, there is some progress. The poverty rate that once was about 70 percent in 1967 now hovers around 30-40 percent in some Delta counties, which still is way too high.

But, with all the facts, all the evidence, and all we see and know, somehow we can’t face it squarely and make the hard decisions to do what we all know should be done. We know that we should take care of children. We know that we should 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 public schools. We should invest in programs and ideas that protect and educate and lift.

We can disagree on how best to do that, but first we have to look and see the problems and not deny that they exist or that it is our problem.

I always have to get past my cynical moments. People with the right information will do the right thing. But we need to look at facts and not allow weak political leadership and apathy to undo progress that has been made.

Theologian John Westerhoff said effective prayer is the dedicated discipline of paying attention. I think that goes for effective public policy as well.

In 1967, some came to see for themselves and acted on what they saw. We need to look around. We need to pay attention.
David Hampton is former editorial director of The Clarion-Ledger. He now teaches journalism at Jackson State University and is a pastoral assistant at Wells United Methodist Church in Jackson. Email dhamp1@comcast.net