Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate

“Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate.” September 12, 1960. CBS film footage courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.

The 1960 debate between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was a seminal moment in the history of politics on television, and hunger played a central role in the debate. In his opening statement, Kennedy referred to his campaign tour of Appalachia, where he witnessed hunger and joblessness in the Coal Country of West Virginia. He cited the region as a symbol of all the poor and working people left out of the purported prosperity of the Eisenhower-Nixon years.

CBS’s “Harvest of Shame”

“Harvest of Shame.” 1960. © CBS News.

CBS debuted “Harvest of Shame” the day after Thanksgiving 1960, spotlighting the living conditions of migrant agricultural workers in America. Respected journalist Edward R. Murrow followed farmworker families along the U.S. eastern seaboard, interviewing parents, teachers, and doctors about the scope and impact of childhood malnutrition and starvation in the farm camps. While the film was intentionally designed to evoke shock in its American audience and galvanize action, Murrow insisted that it not be broadcast globally so that it would not be used as Soviet propaganda during a moment of renewed Cold War tensions.

President Johnson’s First State of the Union Address

“President Johnson’s State of the Union Address.” 1964. CBS film footage courtesy of the LBJ Presidential Library.

Just weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his successor President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” that would be the signature policy objective of his administration. “No single weapon will suffice” in the battle against poverty, President Johnson argued in his first State of the Union Address in 1964, but rather a “special effort” with multiple legislative components including economic development, youth employment projects, expanded minimum wage laws, and action to expand the Food Stamp Program. 

Johnson quoted in Robert Caro, Master of the Senate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002): 719-720. See also Michael A. Bernstein, A Perilous Progress (2014).

Dr. King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.” December 10, 1964. University of Oslo. Copyright © Norsk Rikskringkasting AS 2012.

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to pass the Civil Rights Act. During the  ceremony, Dr. King echoed President Johnson, declaring his own war on poverty, not only in the U.S. but in “every country and colony” across the world. His Nobel Prize speech highlighted hunger, casting the right to “three meals a day” as fundamental to human dignity.

CBS’s “Hunger in America”

“Hunger in America.” 1968. © CBS News.

The 1968 broadcast of Hunger in America returned hunger to the center stage in American politics. References to hunger had been part of the War on Poverty and the Poor People’s Campaign, but the CBS documentary exposed malnutrition as an aspect of everyday life. The program detailed the harmful effects of malnutrition on children’s physical and cognitive development, introducing an 11-year-old child forced into sex work to feed her family, and overturning the fallacy that all malnourished people are skinny. Hunger in America also emphasized the shortcomings of the Food Stamp Program, which fed only 5 million out of the estimated 15 million hungry people in the country. Personal stories added moral and emotional weight to the documentary, providing a shocking yet vital education about the persistence of hunger. And it roused viewers to take action, including a bipartisan array of legislators ranging from liberal Senator George McGovern to conservative Senator Robert Dole.

Robert F. Kennedy’s Victory Speech

“Robert F. Kennedy’s Last Speech.” June 5, 1968. ABC Film Footage. © ABC News.  

In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kenney launched his presidential campaign against then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey based on the administration’s failures to solve the problem of hunger. The previous year, Kennedy witnessed firsthand the devastating situation in the Mississippi Delta after attending hearings in Jackson about the lives of poor tenant farmers. In one particularly impactful moment, Kennedy, the father of ten children, met a boy with a swollen belly who had been left lying on a dirt floor and attempted to soothe the hungry, unresponsive baby. Through tears, Kennedy turned to reporter Nick Kotz and said, “My God, I didn’t know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow this.” A year later, after he won the California primary, Kennedy gave an impromptu victory speech where he highlighted campaign themes of labor and racial justice, ending the speech with an urgent call to help those suffering from hunger. Just after walking out, Kennedy was assassinated, leaving his campaign promises.

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). 144.

Fannie Lou Hamer on CBS News Series "Of Black America"

“Of Black America, No. 5: The Heritage of Slavery (TV).” CBS News Special Report. Paley Center for Media.

A period of racial unrest followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. That summer, CBS News presented Of Black America — a groundbreaking series of seven one-hour documentaries exploring various aspects of history and the state of the Black community. The fifth episode, “The Heritage of Slavery,” featured the famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke about the staggering and persistent poverty and hunger in her home state of Mississippi. While the expression of racism may have grown more subtle, shootings and lynchings of Black southerners were supplanted by economic deprivation and hunger.

Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes”

“Hungry Eyes.” Merle Haggard and the Strangers and Bonnie Owens. 1969. YouTube.

In Merle Haggard’s ballad “Hungry Eyes,” the singer blames the unjust and inescapable work conditions on “another class of people” who “put us somewhere just below.” Haggard’s musical catalog featured this populist cry amid a long list of more conservative-leaning songs, projecting pride in being white descendants of Dust Bowl migrants, rage at anti-war protests, and disdain for anyone who sought handouts from the government. These songs resonated with people who valued whiteness over the country’s racial and ethnic pluralism, and self-reliance over dependency.

Televising the War
on Hunger

After World War II, middle-class Americans rapidly embraced live television broadcasts of family dramas and comedies, which often projected an idealized image of suburban life. TV stations began to diversify their offerings and moved to more sophisticated content like investigative reporting and documentaries that provided persuasive narratives. 

It was in the context of these improvements to the medium of television that the Civil Rights Movement reached its zenith from 1955 to 1965. Among the new images beamed into households across the nation were the sights and sounds of hungry Americans. In documentary films and news specials, visceral images of starving children in America offered audiences shocking exposure to hunger as an extant social problem in racialized communities, opening a new front in the fight for food justice. National news broadcasts provided elected officials and activists unparalleled forums to raise the issue of hunger to the American public.

Televising the War
on Hunger