It was 11 years ago that Robert F. Kennedy came here with a Senate subcommittee and riveted the nation's attention on hunger in America.
The distended stomachs, chronic sores and lethargy found among Delta children - the effects of severe malnutrition - brought a flood of newspaper articles, television documentaries, private studies and government reports.
The conditions in Mississippi also sparked new support for the struggling food stamp program, which at the time reached 1.5 million people nationwide and cost $106 million annually.
Today the program is mandatory in every county in the United States, reaches 17 million and costs about $5.6 billion. In Mississippi, still the poorest of states by many standards, the program helps 312,000 people. It reaches a larger percentage of eligible people than it does in 25 other states.
But there still are people in the Mississippi heartland who tell of going to bed regularly on empty stomachs or of lying awake to the sound of neighbors' children crying from hunger. Some say they have seen small children scavenging in garbage cans for food, others say they have nothing but a package of dried beans for supper.
It is this persistent problem of hunger that has led to a new confrontation between poor people's organization between poor people's organizations and state officials over the effectiveness of the food stamp program. Using 1960s-style media campaigns, demonstrations and appeals for federal intervention, the activists have accused welfare officials of abusive and illegal treatment of food stamp recipients. State and county officials have denied the charges, and in one case had the demonstrators arrested.
Two of the movement's leaders were among four persons indicted and jailed on welfare fraud charges in Simpson County last month. Five VISTA volunteers, approved by the national office to do food stamp advocacy for the Mississippi Hunger Coalition, were recently rejected by Gov. Cliff Finch. The activists cite these actions as a move to discredit and silence them.
Cleo Smith, mother of 10 and former welfare recipient who was one of those charged with fraud, said she sees much hunger and deprivation in her rounds of five predominantly rural counties south of the capital in her $9,000-a-year job as food stamp advocate for Central Mississippi Legal Services. Smith works out of a closet-sized office in a low, church-owned building down a weed-lined street of "The Quarters" - the black section of Simpson County's seat at Mendenhall.
It is not unusual, Smith said at a congressional hearing on welfare overhaul last fall, to find Mississippians who "can't get food stamps or anything . . . who should be eating a balanced meal and will come up with a slice of toast and a Coca-Cola."
Atare Fuller, 38, seated with her three pale, silent children in the linoleum-floored living room of a $60-a-month house in Jefferson Davis County told of their familiarity with hunger.
"We sure have been hungry.Many a time we didn't have a drop of anything to eat in this house, and when we did, I'd have to borrow grease to cook it with," said Fuller, who has paid $96 a month for $207 worth of food stamps since the welfare rights group took up her case.
She said county officials first cut off their food stamps in 1975 because two of her children were certified as epileptic and placed on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal program for the old, blind and disabled. On reapplication, they were allowed stamps at $159 a month, beyond her husband's means on his $50 or $60 a week for odd jobs, Fuller said.
In a converted blacksmith shop several hundred yards away, Jessie Watts, the neighbor to whom Fuller turned to "borrow grease," was about to prepare dinner for her husband and five children - "nothing but a packet of dried beans." Watts said her $75 monthly food stamp purchase had run out and they could not afford groceries.
The welfare rights organizations point to poor, white families like the Fullers and the Wattses to illustrate their contention that the racial discrimination of the sourthern past has been supplanted by nonracial economic injustice that is perpetuated through mishandling of federal aid, particularly the food stamp program.
"I think it's just because we're poor and we don't understand the rules and everything." Fuller said. "We don't have the education others have." She finished eighth grade; her husband, Hulon, fourth.
In a number of southern states, hunger coalitions and welfare rights groups have been organized or revived in recent months in an attempt, they say, to combat the ignorance and intimidation that keep the eligible poor off federal aid programs.
Two major problems, according to Faith Evans of the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice, are the "pre-1950s" attitudes of southern welfare officials, who see programs as "giveaways" and the poor as undeserving, and the fear of officialdom often held by poor people.
Most large urban areas now have standardized their treatment of food stamp applicants as a result of lawsuits and sophisticated organization efforts, Evans said. But in the largely rural South, the poor lack communication, transportation and access to programs that would protect them from the arbitrary treatment of local officials, Evans said.
"You can go into 13 different Alabama counties with the same case and get 13 different rulings," said Evans, who helped organize support for some of the new rights organizations in the South.
In Alabama, state hunger coalition director Bill Edwards said he has found that the "poor are mostly old people on SSI, sharecroppers and sometimes illiterate." Although welfare officials display a "paternalistic" attitude toward the poor in general, there is also an "element of racism, because the predominantly black recipients feel estranged, alienated and intimidated" by the nearly all-white state and county bureaucrats administering food stamps, he said.
Although they share with other rights groups the goal of extending food stamp availability in everyone eligible, the Mississippi activists appear to be more outspoken, combative and visible than their counterparts in other states.
Rick Abraham, grandson of a Delta plantation owner who said he became a radical protesting the Vietnam war, criticized other antipoverty efforts as being "into compromise and conciliation," but his group, the Mississippi Hunger Coalition, believes in "confrontation," when other methods fail, he said.
Abraham, along with Cleo Smith, helped organize and transport busloads of poor Mississippians to Department of Agriculture food stamp hearings last fall in Memphis, to speak out against the state program.
They also petitioned for USDA investigation of state food stamp operations. Consequently, the federal agency directed Mississippi to correct deficiencies, including improper denials and termination of food stamp cases, "poor communication" with clients, lack of outreach efforts, and "demeaning and insensitive attitudes" among food stamp workers.
Abraham, Smith and the loose alliance of advocates and organizations surrounding them also take credit for a sit-in last spring at a Jefferson Davis County welfare office that resulted in arrests of demonstrators and officials.
Mississippi's welfare commissioner William Caraway, denies that most of his department's workers are insensitive and abusive of the poor. "Above all else we stress patience, courtesy and kindness, but with 3,600 (employes) there may be a few . . .," Caraway added.
He said he believes the main problem is that Mississippi is very poor, with the lowest per capita income of any state, and cannot afford more than it now spends for the needy.
Some welfare workers are paid no more than $115 a week, and for those salaries "it is sometimes difficult to get the most competent help," Caraway said. As for the vociferous critics of his agency, he said, "These rights organizations are sent down here principally as professional agitators" to create political controversy.
The organizations' leaders say, however, that they are more outspoken because Mississippi is harsher in its treatment of the poor and often more vindictive toward their supporters than officials elsewhere.
"Mississippi happens to be one of the most unresponsive to . . . human needs of any state I ever lived in," charged Smith, who worked for and against welfare agencies in several states where she lived as daughter of a mobile Baptist minister and wife of a military man.
Smith filed suit last month in Simpson County alleging harassment and punitive behavior against state officials from Caraway to the county level for her indictment on charges of illegally accepting $800 in food stamps two years ago.
"A lot of people are saying this is calculated harassment," said Simpson County welfare director Wiley McGee, who initiated the charges. Instead, he said, Mississippi's limited resources make it necessary to be more vigilant against fraud. He said, however, that he could not recall the year his county last prosecuted a welfare fraud case.