Patricia Sullivan on Her Reappraisal of RFK's Role in the Civil Rights Movement
tags: civil rights,RFK,Robert F. Kennedy
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Robert F. Kennedy, South Africa, 1966
America in the nineteen sixties: a time of turbulence, protest, division, war, and racial reckoning. Segregationists in the South brutalized activists who cried out for equal rights for African Americans as riots left urban centers around the country in flames and in rubble. At the same time, the catastrophic war in Southeast Asia drained funds from domestic programs to address poverty and inequality.
During that fraught period, Robert F. Kennedy became champion for human rights, and his specific achievements merit close attention today.
In her groundbreaking new book, Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White (Harvard Press), leading civil rights historian Patricia Sullivan looks at the struggle for racial justice through the lens of Kennedy’s work during his terms as attorney general and senator until his tragic assassination on the campaign trail when vying for president in 1968.
As Professor Sullivan recounts, Robert Kennedy made civil rights his top priority in his brief years as US Attorney General and as a US Senator. Immediately after he began work as attorney general in his brother’s administration in 1961, he and his talented team of young attorneys began pursuing cases to attack segregation and denial of voting rights of Black citizens in the Jim Crow South. He also investigated the consequences of racial discrimination beyond the South while laying the foundation for the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. And, as Professor Sullivan describes, Kennedy explored conditions of the most desperate American citizens as AG and as a senator in his travels to meet impoverished Black families in the Mississippi Delta and in cities, as well as visiting white people living in Appalachia, and Native Americans and migrant farmworkers around the country.
This revelatory book is based on Professor Sullivan’s extensive archival research as well as her interviews with RFK’s contemporaries, both colleagues at DOJ and in the Senate as well as activists, friends, and others. In addition, she uncovered overlooked material such as articles from the Black press and documents from Black writers and commentators and even unpublished notes and files of mainstream journalists.
With Justice Rising, Professor Sullivan proves a gifted storyteller who creates a sense of suspense as she unfolds this tumultuous history that continues to inform our present. Her book takes readers inside Kennedy’s Department of Justice and into Senate hearings and with Kennedy during his many investigations and fact-finding tours—as it reveals the major events of the civil rights movement, chronicling the activities of the leaders and activists of the movement for racial justice.
Patricia Sullivan is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and has codirected a twenty-year long series of summer institutes at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute on "Teaching the History of the Civil Rights Movement." Her other books include Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (2009); Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years (2003); and Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (1996). She also co-edited New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, with Armstead L. Robinson, and she co-edited Civil Rights in the United States, a two-volume encyclopedia, with Waldo E. Martin Jr. And Professor Sullivan and Waldo Martin are editors of the John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Professor Sullivan graciously responded by telephone and in writing to questions about her work as a historian and her new book on RFK and the civil rights movement.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Sullivan on your groundbreaking new book on Robert F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement. Before getting to your book, I wanted to ask about how history became your career. Were you interested in history as a child?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: I was one of five kids, and I was the one who was always interested in history. I loved listening to my father and his cousins talk about growing up in Brooklyn in a community of Irish immigrants, in tenement houses on Butler Street. And my mother's mother, Johanna Archer, lived with us. She was full of stories about her life as a young woman in New York at the turn of the last century and her experiences during the Depression.
I had a wonderful history teacher in high school, and she broadened my horizons. In college, I pursued a joint degree in History and Education, planning to teach history in grammar school or high school. As luck would have it, one of my professors suggested I think about going on to graduate school in history – which was something I had not been considering. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I had set my sights on getting a job. But, at his suggestion, I applied to Boston College, was awarded a graduate assistantship – and jumped at the chance to continue my study of history.
Robin Lindley: And then how did you decide that you wanted to focus on the history of the civil rights movement?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: I intended to study immigration history at Boston College – Boston seemed like a good place for that. However, my work as a research assistant for Professor Andrew Buni set me on a different course. Andy was just beginning research for a biography of Paul Robeson. Learning about Robeson – the internationally renowned artist, singer, and performer, a leading political activist for racial justice and human rights, and target of Cold War repression – exposed me to aspects of American history that I had been completely unaware of. I spent days researching in the Robeson archives in an office suite across from Carnegie Hall in New York and joined Andy on several interviews – including with Dorothy Burnham and Esther Cooper Jackson, who had worked with Robeson when they lived in Birmingham, Alabama and through later years in New York. (I’ve remained friends with both women, who have been regular speakers in our Harvard NEH seminars.)
One of my assignments was to research Robeson’s travels in the South in the 1940s, just after World War II, for meetings and concerts sponsored by groups like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and later, in 1948 in support of the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace. Robeson refused to perform before segregated audiences, which aligned with the efforts of these groups to challenge the Jim Crow system.
I met and interviewed a remarkable group of Southerners, Black and white, who Robeson worked with – all part of the first wave of the civil rights movement which gained momentum during the 1930s and 1940s. People I met included Mojeska Simkins in Columbia, South Carolina, Ruby Cornwall and Jesse Doster in Charleston, Virginia Durr, in Montgomery, Alabama, Arthur Raper, then living outside of Washington, DC, and others – all part of New Deal era generation of civil rights activists working to challenge segregation, secure voting rights and revive a biracial democracy in the South in response to the political energy released during the Depression and the New Deal. Their story ultimately became the subject of my dissertation and the basis for my first book.
Robin Lindley: What an inspiring beginning to your work as a historian. And later, with your book Lift Every Voice, you delved into the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] and the civil rights movement.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Joe Wood, a brilliant writer and editor then working as an editor with the New Press, encouraged me to consider writing a history of the NAACP. That struck me as a daunting undertaking, but Joe persuaded me to approach it not as an organizational history, but a story of the women, men and communities who built and organized the NAACP, in effect creating the infrastructure for a national civil rights movement. That interested me.
The NAACP had emerged as a formative force in the work I'd done on the South during the thirties and forties, when Charles Houston launched the legal and community-based organizing campaign that would secure, among other major legal victories, Brown v. Board in 1954.
The book, which covers the period from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 up through the 1950s, explores how several generations resisted and challenged the color line, not only in the South, but in towns and cities across the country, as African American migration transformed America’s racial landscape. It is a story of how legal brilliance, grass roots organizing, the strength of Black culture and institutions, interracial alliances, and a fundamental faith in democracy built and sustained long term struggles to advance justice and uproot racial barriers and practices. It also became a story of the deep and tangled roots of racism in America, and the ignorance, indifference and opportunism that accounts for its resilience.
Robin Lindley: And now you have written a history of the civil rights movement in the 1960s through this lens of Robert Kennedy. What sparked your research in that direction?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: My book on the NAACP left me with questions about the sixties. When protests drew national attention to segregation and white violence in the South, nearly half of African Americans lived in the North and West, in communities where segregation was deeply entrenched. Unlike the South, segregation was not mandated by law in northern urban communities. It was created and enforced by public policies, private interests, and abusive policing, resulting in poverty, deteriorating housing, run-down schools, and high unemployment – intolerable conditions that would ignite widespread urban rebellions later in the decade.
I wanted to take a fresh look at a racial reckoning that reached into all parts of the country during the 1960s and I was drawn to the dynamic intersection of race and politics. Surprisingly to me, Robert Kennedy emerged as a national figure whose public life was shaped largely in response not only to the demands that the Black Freedom movement brought to fore but to the opportunities it created to confront the legacies of America’s racial past.
Robin Lindley: You worked on this book for almost a decade. How would you describe your research process? It seems you uncovered works from previously untapped sources, such as African American materials including articles from the Black press and writing from Black commentators and literary figures.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: The research process moved along two major tracks. The contours of African American life in the United States during this era, particularly Black struggles for civil rights and freedom, is a major focus and informs the historical context of the book. My research relied on Black newspapers, articles in various periodicals, oral history interviews from several archival collections, along with ones that I conducted, memoirs and autobiographies, and a rich collection of secondary sources.
One of my most exciting discoveries was a series of interviews conducted by young reporters for Time magazine, who traveled to Black college campuses in the South during the spring of 1960 seeking out student leaders of the sit-in movement while the protests were ongoing. The transcripts of these interviews, which are archived in Harvard’s Houghton Library, offered a rare glimpse of the determination, courage, and democratic faith that inspired these young women and men, in the face of violence and even death. The interviews capture what it took to ignite the final stage of the southern-based movement, as well as how they marked a breakthrough in a political culture that had been dominated by Cold War fears and repression.
The parallel track focuses on Robert Kennedy. In considering his early life, leading up to 1960, I wanted to understand what prepared Kennedy to respond the way he did when his public life converged with the movement. One of the great finds in RFK’s papers at the JFK library were diaries he kept during a trip to the Middle East and Europe in 1948, fresh out of college, in the aftermath of World War II, and in 1951, to the Middle East and Asia, including North and South Vietnam, with JFK. The diaries reveal Kennedy’s concerns about the poverty and human suffering he witnessed, and sympathy with the wave of nationalist struggles sweeping Asia and the Middle East.
Most of the book focuses on the period from 1960 through 1968. In addition to the sources mentioned above, some of the most valuable and revealing sources are contained in the oral history collections at the JFK library. They include a surprisingly broad range of interviews conducted close to the period with individuals from James Baldwin, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and SNCC activists to Justice Department lawyers, government officials, RFK’s key Senate aides, and others, as well as Robert Kennedy.
Robin Lindley: And it’s impressive that you were able to interview many people from the RFK era, including his friends, DOJ attorneys and other colleagues, as well as activists and scholars of this period. Who were some of your notable subjects for interviews?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Among the most notable people I interviewed in terms of Kennedy’s immediate circle were: Ethel Kennedy, John Seigenthaler, one of RFK’s closest friends who worked with him in the Justice Department, Peter Edelman, who worked with RFK from 1963 until 1968, William vanden Heuvel, particularly for his work with RFK in setting up the Prince Edward County Free School in Virginia, and Frank Mankiewicz, RFK’s press secretary.
Bob Moses, who I had known for many years, was enormously helpful. Moses led the effort to register Black voters in Mississippi and worked closely with Justice Department lawyers who were litigating voting rights cases in the Deep South. Other activists who were especially helpful included John Lewis who began getting to know RFK in 1963 and ended up working on his presidential campaign in 1968. Marian Wright, a leader in the sit-in movement and later a civil rights lawyer, took Kennedy to see the desperate poverty in the Mississippi Delta. SNCC activist Martha Prescod Norman Noonan was always available to answer my queries; her insights have been invaluable. Finally, I was fortunate to interview Margaret Marshall, a leader of the anti-apartheid student group that invited RFK to South Africa in 1966, who served as his guide throughout his five-day visit.
Robin Lindley: You’re an expert on US civil rights history, but did you come across one or two surprises you’d like to share with readers?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: I suppose the major surprise was the kind of role the Kennedys – both JFK and RFK--played during this period in relationship to the civil rights/black freedom struggles.
Historians have generally discounted the role of the Kennedy administration, concluding that they moved only when forced to by the rush of events, and that somehow RFK experienced an epiphany after his brother was assassinated. This is clearly not the case.
My research revealed that both brothers were prepared to respond not only to the demands raised by the sit-ins and mass protests that began in 1960, but to the opportunities they created. It is important to consider the obstacles they faced – in terms of a Congress dominated by Southern Democrats and a country where racial segregation was the norm. How they navigated these constraints, while pushing on various fronts, particularly but not exclusively in the Department of Justice, tells the story. When Birmingham exploded, they were prepared to seize that moment to push major civil rights legislation – at a time when many, including vice-president Lyndon Johnson, argued that it would be impossible to pass and would just cause trouble. My research demonstrates that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though it was signed into law by President Johnson after JFK’s assassination, was a major achievement of the Kennedy administration.
Notably, by 1963, both JFK and RFK realized the depth of America’s racial inequities and injustices, conditions that could not be remedied merely by legislation.
Another surprise was to realize the extent to which RFK’s public life from his Senate years through his brief presidential campaign intersected with the broad expanse of African American struggles and activism in the later 1960s. Kennedy’s trip to South Africa in June 1966 occurred around the same time as the March against Fear in Mississippi. His responses to the March and to “Black Power” are revealing. RFK supported the Watts Writers Workshop, established in the wake of the Watts rebellion, and his involvement with the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn led to the establishment of a major community-run redevelopment project.
Another significant episode was his trip to Mississippi in 1967 after Marian Wright testified in Washington on the failure of federally anti-poverty programs to begin to address desperate conditions in the Delta. Kennedy heard testimony in Jackson, Mississippi from movement veterans Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore and others, and then went to see conditions for himself, accompanied by Moore and Wright. Shocked by what he saw and heard, he secured emergency food relief for these communities and continued to press for a more focused and expanded war on poverty.
Robin Lindley: It’s an incredibly detailed and lively book. I learned a lot. It seems RFK was thought of as a fairly conservative young lawyer in the 1950s. I remember a story about him traveling with Justice William O. Douglas in Russia. Douglas saw RFK as somewhat rigid and judgmental and he advised the young lawyer to open his mind about people from other parts of the world.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Yes, Kennedy traveled to Russia with Douglass in 1955, and looked at the country through the lens of the Cold War; he was suspicious of Russian leaders and he was anti-communist. However, his exposure to the people and culture persuaded him that efforts should be made to cultivate greater understanding between the citizens of both countries. This was one of his most interesting qualities – as one friend said, he had “an experiencing nature.” As I mentioned earlier, he traveled to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia in 1948 and 1951 – and what he saw and experienced had a significant impact on his understanding of the postwar world. While not dulling his suspicions about communism, he became sympathetic to nationalist movements, and concerned that U.S. policy was not attuned to the poverty and repression along with the desire for freedom, driving these struggles. As a friend remarked to me, “he was international before he was national,” insofar as recognizing these injustices in other countries during the 1950s while not yet showing awareness of racial problems in his own country.
Robin Lindley: What do you think sparked Robert Kennedy’s interest in the conditions of Black people and civil rights?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: I think there are several factors at work. Timing is important, namely the fact that JFK’s presidential campaign in 1960 coincided with the mass protests sparked by the sit-ins and, due to the large migration during the 50s, Black voters in the North would be a more powerful factor in a national election than any time previously.
A major question I had from the start was what prepared Robert Kennedy to respond in the way that he did. Based on my research, I’ve concluded that it’s a combination of things: personal characteristics, his education, and his experiences. He was independent-minded and had a capacity to question his own assumptions and beliefs. An incident in 1951, while a third-year law student at the University of Virginia, is notable. RFK invited Ralph Bunche to speak at the university shortly after Bunche had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche accepted on the condition that he would not speak before a segregated audience. Segregation of public meetings was the law in Virginia at that time. Kennedy went all the way to the president of the university, Colgate Darden, making the case for a non-segregated meeting in a five-page letter, in his determination to meet Bunche’s demand. Darden finally agreed. Bunche spoke before an audience of 1,500, roughly a third of whom were African American, the first integrated public meeting on the campus of the University of Virginia.
Robin Lindley: It struck me and it may surprise some readers about how soon, as attorney general in 1961, RFK started working on desegregation and voting rights cases. He also assembled a team of creative and progressive people at the Justice Department. How do you see his beginnings at Justice and how his staff related to him?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: It is apparent that by 1960, and during the campaign, both John and Robert Kennedy had been exposed to racial conditions around the country. Their interest and awareness were undoubtedly sparked in part by an understanding of the critical importance of the northern Black vote in the election. But evidence indicates that they had both begun to see and reckon with the deep racial injustices in the country.
In April 1960, as a presidential candidate, JFK invited Thurgood Marshall to meet him for lunch in his Senate office – Marshall ended up staying all afternoon. He later recounted in an interview that JFK knew all the problems concerning voting and registration in the South and had a full grasp of the school situation. After spending several hours with JFK, Marshall had no doubt that he was committed to civil rights and the full equality of all Americans.
John Kennedy knew that civil rights would be the dominant domestic issue, and that is one of the reasons why he wanted his brother to serve as Attorney General. He told Bobby that he needed someone he could trust, someone that would join him in taking whatever risks, and deal with the problem honestly. “We’re going to have to change the climate in this country,” JFK said. It proved to be a brilliant appointment.
Robin Lindley: Those young lawyers were a new breed and RFK even brought in writers, like his chief aide, John Seigenthaler, a journalist.
Professor Patricia Sullivan. RFK brought together a group of remarkable lawyers. Many of them were veterans of World War II. None of them were yet 40 years old, and they were smart, energetic, and committed to public service. One of them, Nicholas Katzenbach, recalled, “people were excited about being part of something that would do some good for the country. This is really the gift Bobby had. I’ve seen it not only there but in anything he got into. He just engendered tremendous loyalty.”
Kennedy and Burke Marshall, who headed up the Civil Rights Division, formed a partnership which would mark the beginning of a sea change in the civil rights polices of the federal government. In John Doar, who had joined the Civil Rights Division during the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy found someone who had already made inroads investigating voter discrimination in the South. Shortly after taking office, Kennedy told the Civil Rights Division lawyers that he wanted a concentrated effort to enforce voting rights laws in the most recalcitrant states – Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. To implement this effort, he quadrupled the number of lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, and Burke Marshall and John Doar built what was in effect a field operation in the Deep South, with lawyers spending weeks at a time investigating voting rights violations, interviewing people, and developing cases. Their efforts quickly aligned with the work of Bob Moses and other SNCC activists, who initiated a voter registration campaign in Mississippi in the summer of 1961.
I talked with Bob Moses at length about his experiences with Justice Department attorneys, especially John Doar, during this period. Early in 1963, he and other SNCC activists confronted the limits of the federal government’s ability or willingness to fully support their effort during a violent showdown in Greenwood, Mississippi; that marked a major rupture. Years later, Bob formed a close friendship with John Doar. The last time I saw Bob in spring 2019 he was working in John Doar’s papers at Princeton, researching what had happened in Mississippi around the voting rights effort.
Robin Lindley: I think many people, especially younger people, may not understand how violent and entrenched segregation was in the Jim Crow South. And, as you note, the North was also segregated. You have violence in the sixties around race, with state- sponsored violence and oppression notably in the South. A couple of examples that you vividly describe in your book were the attacks on the Freedom Riders, and the white supremacist violence at the University of Mississippi, “Ole Miss,” over the admission of Black student James Meredith.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Widespread defiance of the law and mob violence in defense of the segregation system peaked during the early 1960s, as civil rights activists refused to back down in their demands for full civil rights.
The Freedom Rides in the spring of 1961 marked an important turning point. An interracial group of young men and women traveled by bus into the South to test the enforcement of a recent Supreme Court decision barring segregation in facilities serving interstate travel. (In 1946, the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate carriers, though it was rarely enforced in the South). In Alabama, one of the buses was firebombed, and in Birmingham a mob wielding steel pipes and bats assaulted the riders as they left the bus while the police stood by. When it became clear that Governor John Patterson would not intervene to protect the riders, Robert Kennedy sent a team of 500 federal marshals into Alabama. It was only the intervention of the marshals that kept a mob of more than 1,000 people from invading the First Baptist Church during a mass meeting where Martin Luther King and others celebrated the Freedom Riders.
Commenting on Alabama’s public officials and the mob action they condoned, an incredulous Robert Kennedy told John Doar, “Those fellows are at war with this country.”
The Kennedy administration faced another major showdown with state authorities in the fall of 1962 when Mississippi governor Ross Barnett challenged a federal court ruling mandating the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. When federal marshals escorted James Meredith onto campus, Barnett withdrew all law enforcement from the area, allowing more than 1000 people to riot. Two people were killed, and it took 25,000 troops to restore order.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your comments on state-sponsored violence at a time when white people in the South could lynch Black people with impunity. That says something powerful about the culture of the country and many people may not understand this dark past unless they have studied this history.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: What is striking when you look back at this history is how forces were allied at every level of government to sustain and enforce the segregation system in defiance of court rulings and existing laws. Southern Democrats wielded tremendous power in Congress by virtue of their seniority and the united front they presented, routinely relying on the filibuster to block strong civil rights legislation.
Robert Kennedy believed that the political empowerment of African Americans, long disenfranchised in Southern states, was key to tackling this deeply entrenched segregation system. The Justice Department had the power to sue officials who unjustly barred Black citizens from registering, and Kennedy set about using it. As noted earlier, his Civil Rights division created a field operation with attorneys spending weeks at a time in the South investigating voter discrimination, collecting evidence, and litigating cases, county by county – filing more than thirty-five cases. Like the civil rights activists, the Justice Department quickly found that the entire process, from the registrars to the courts, was geared to stall and obstruct the registration of Black citizens.
During this time, Robert Kennedy was attentive to the national reach of segregation and racial discrimination. In the spring of 1961, he went with an aide to East Harlem, where he met with Black and Puerto Rican youth, several who had been in prison. He asked them about their lives and what the government could do for them. Soon after, he established a federally funded program that created 16 community-based projects in cities across the country, focused on job training, education, recreation, and other needs identified by the communities. Kennedy visited each one of them. These programs laid the groundwork for what would later become the community action programs of the War on Poverty.
In March of 1963, Kennedy delivered a speech marking the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation which reveals an understanding of the depth and far-reaching consequences of racial segregation and discrimination. He observed that after a brief period of progress following Emancipation, the doctrine of “separate but equal” became enshrined into law only to “lay like a dead hand on the springs of progress.” Now, he said, “we can see the toll extracted by discrimination – wither overt segregation or covert bigotry.” Speaking to those who had devoted themselves to the cause of racial justice, he cautioned that meeting the challenges would take an outpouring of energy unlike any other to date. The problems were massive, he said, “the results of discrimination carry on for generation after generation. To confront this openly is the challenge of this decade.”
Robin Lindley: You also detail the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and the horrific images of how local police under Chief Bull Connor treated protestors. That story also ties into the origins of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Birmingham marked the breaking point. Early in May 1963, scenes of Bull Connor’s police attacking protesters as young as seven with dogs and high-powered fire hoses were front page news across America. Street demonstrations erupted in Black communities around the country, while Klan bombings and violent confrontations between the police and protesters continued in Birmingham, pushing the city to the verge of a race war.
The violence and brutal police action focused national attention on conditions in the South. The Kennedy brothers saw the opportunity to push for major civil rights legislation outlawing segregation in public places and accommodations and other provisions. Robert Kennedy’s team drafted legislation over a weekend in mid-May, and the administration began a multi-front effort to mobilize public opinion behind the bill and build a bipartisan coalition in Congress capable of defeating a southern filibuster.
I was surprised that Vice-president Lyndon Johnson, along with nearly all of JFK’s aides, was against introducing a civil rights bill. It was because they did not there was any chance of it passing and that it would only derail the rest of the president’s legislative agenda. Robert Kennedy was the conclusive voice within the administration. As Burke Marshall recalled, “he urged it, he felt it, he understood it and he prevailed. I don’t think anyone else – except the president himself – felt that way.”
On June 11, Kennedy delivered a speech to the nation, which he and his brother drafted – a remarkable speech which I urge everyone to read. He ended by saying that he would “ask Congress to act and make a commitment it had not fully made in this century – to the proposition that race has no place in American life and law.”
The support of at least twenty-five Republicans would be necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. During this time many Republicans were sympathetic to civil rights but not inclined to let a Democratic administration get the credit. The Kennedy team succeeded in enlisting the support of key Republican leaders as the bill made its way through hearings. The whole thing nearly unraveled during the House Judiciary Committee hearings, but President Kennedy managed to bring Democrats into line and hold onto key Republicans – a delicate balancing act. On November 20, 1963, the House Judiciary Committee approved the president’s civil rights bill sending it on to the full house. The basic content of the bill would remain largely intact, and the bipartisan coalition would hold – culminating with LBJ signing the bill into law on July 2, 1964.
Robin Lindley: How did the death of President Kennedy in Dallas affect Robert Kennedy? The assassination shocked the world. Your book indicates that RFK continued his work as attorney general, even though he was grieving. And he did his work as AG under President Johnson who disliked him and wasn't necessarily supportive of everything he was doing.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Yes. I think one important thing to point out is that, by the time president Kennedy went to Texas, in November 1963, he and his brother and their team had civil rights legislation on track.
After President Kennedy was killed, Robert Kennedy along with Burke Marshall, Nicholas Katzenbach and other attorneys in the Justice Department led in moving the bill through Congress – an arrangement that Lyndon Johnson supported. While President Johnson was fully behind the legislation, he left it to Kennedy and his team to implement their strategy. They educated members and their staffs about the content of the bill, debunking the false information being floated by George Wallace and groups organized in opposition to the legislation. Burke Marshall was shocked to find that the chief of staff for Everett Dirksen, the key Republican in the Senate, had no idea about what conditions in the South were like.
During the spring of 1964, Robert Kennedy devoted much of his time speaking about the bill and what it would do. Addressing a group of journalists, he warned that the mere passage of legislation would not make racial difficulties disappear. “We are going to have to pay for what has gone on in the past,” he told them. One of the most important consequences of the bill, he said, would be to demonstrate that white and Black people can work together. Failure to do so, he said, would confirm eh feeling of many African Americans, especially young people, “that there is no future in this system.”
Robin Lindley: As attorney general and then in the Senate RFK laid the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act as well.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: John Doar, probably the leading Justice Department attorney in the field of Voting Rights, has publicly stated that the Voting Rights Act was in large part a product of Robert Kennedy’s work as Attorney General. The legislation was written based on the experiences of the field teams of attorneys who worked in the South in the early 1960s, investigating voting rights violations and litigating cases and seeing the endless variety of tactics Southern officials used to obstruct voting, even in violation of existing laws. Burke Marshall had left the administration by this time, but he returned to work with Doar and others to draft the bill, which included strong provisions for federal oversight. Notably, Section 5 required preclearance of any changes in voting procedures by states with a history of voter discrimination. The rush of voter restrictions enacted after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 in 2013 underscores how critical that provision was.
Robin Lindley: In his term as attorney general, Robert Kennedy approved FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. RFK also must have known about Hoover’s campaign to spy on and undermine other Black leaders and celebrities. Some commentators thus find RFK’s record flawed on civil rights. What did you learn and what do you think about Kennedy’s leadership in terms of Hoover’s campaigns?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed by Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s widely acclaimed speech at the March on Washington, Hoover increased his efforts to destroy King. His main tactic at that time was to charge that King was influenced if not controlled by the communists, making him a national security risk. Neither John nor Robert Kennedy believed King was influenced by communists – though they had asked him to cut ties with Stanley Levison, one of his key advisers. Hoover had let it be known that Levison had been involved with the Communist Party in the 1950s, and the Kennedys realized this could be used against King and in turn help mobilize opposition to the civil rights bill.
That fall of 1963, the FBI produced a report, “Communism and the Negro Movement.” Hoover told RFK that King was still in contact with Levison and insisted that King was linked into the Communist movement. He wanted the Attorney General to approve a wiretap on King’s phones to expose the nature of this relationship. Kennedy hesitated at first, but in mid-October 1963 finally agreed to wiretaps on King’s home and office phone on a trial basis to be reevaluated after 30 days.
Why did he do it? Scholars and close associates speculate on several factors that were probably at play. Hoover consolidated his power through the implied threat of blackmail based on FBI surveillance. He had sent RFK reports of JFK’s sexual indiscretions, most recently of his long-term relationship with Judith Campbell, the girlfriend of mobster Sam Giancana. Another consideration may well have been the civil rights bill. A leak by Hoover to the press implying King’s association with communists could easily doom the legislation. By authorizing a thirty-day window, he may have hoped to satisfy Hoover in the short term – and long enough to get over the civil rights bill’s first hurtle in the House Judiciary Committee.
Hoover wielded power and someone in Kennedy’s position had to navigate it. While there is no way to justify the wiretap, the circumstances shed important light. It should be noted that after JFK was assassinated, Hoover never again reported to Robert Kennedy while he was Attorney General – but dealt directly with Lyndon Johnson, who was much more tolerant of Hoover’s obsession with King.
Robin Lindley: Some biographers think that Robert Kennedy changed after the death of his brother, that he became much more reflective and even more empathetic. And he got involved as attorney general and then as senator in addressing problems of poverty and civil rights of African Americans, as well as indigenous people and Latinx or Hispanic people and impoverished white people. And he visited places like the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia and California farms to raise awareness about American poverty.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: While many have suggested that RFK changed after his brother’s assassination, I think that claim is exaggerated. My research demonstrated that by 1963, Robert Kennedy’s concerns about race and poverty were well developed, and deeply held. What is notable is that his experiences as part of his brother’s administration prepared him for what was to come, as cities around the country became the front lines in the battle against the brutal manifestations of entrenched racial inequities and injustices.
By the time he entered Congress as the Senator from New York in January 1965, the country was moving into one of its most tumultuous periods. That March, Lyndon Johnson dramatically expanded America’s involvement in Vietnam, initiating a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and sending in thousands of American ground troops. And, at the end of, in August of 1965, barely a week after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, the Watts area of Los Angeles exploded. The desperate conditions and policing abuses in the cities had reached a breaking point by then. So that was the environment when Kennedy joined the Senate.
There had been urban uprisings sparked by policing incidents the previous summer, but the scale of the Watts rebellion shocked the country. It left 34 people dead, mostly African Americans, 1,000 injured and large sections of the city burned out. The dominant response across the country was calls for law and order. Robert Kennedy pushed back. “There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes, the law is the enemy. In Harlem, in Bedford Stuyvesant, it has almost always been used against him.”
Watts marked a turning point in the later 1960s, similar to how the sit-ins in 1960 marked a new phase of the civil rights movement. What happened in Watts, Kennedy believed, signaled a crisis “unparalleled in our history.” The challenge of meeting the expectations raised by the civil rights movement and addressing the conditions that defined the everyday lives of many African Americans living in segregated urban areas was enormous. The problem, Kennedy believed, was rooted in the prejudices, fears and indifference that prevented many Americans from facing the consequences of generations of racial discrimination and segregation.
As a Senator, Kennedy worked to expose the human costs of racial and economic inequality and injustices, pushed for government action on a massive scale, and moved through the country, seeing, listening, and engaging individuals and organizations in the effort to find a way forward. The depths of poverty during a period of unprecedented economic prosperity in the United States became a major focus of his attention. He witnessed its bleak manifestations in the Mississippi Delta, in the barren coalfields of Appalachia, migrant labor camps, and on Indian reservations as well as in America’s blighted urban areas.
America’s deep racial wounds, however, remained central to his concerns. In October 1966 Kennedy told 15,000 students at UC-Berkeley that there was no area of national life more in need of attention and leadership, than “the revolution within our gates, the struggle of the Negro American for full equality and for full freedom.” That month, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in neighboring Oakland.
Justice Rising shows that Kennedy’s efforts during these years are best understood within the context of the broad and dynamic expanse of African American struggles and activism in the later 1960s, as the more intractable consequences of America’s racial past commanded attention. Stokely Carmichael’s widely publicized call for “Black Power” during the 1966 March against Fear drew condemnation from the press, from liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. When asked about it, Kennedy commented that the phrase could mean many things. He said he supported the idea of black self-determination and empowerment and noted that “surface integration” was not the solution to America’s race problems. Later that summer, he published an article in Look magazine on his visit to South Africa. The title, which was prominently displayed on the magazine’s cover, asked: “Suppose God is Black.”
Robin Lindley: You begin the book with the meeting in New York City that Robert Kennedy had with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and other African American luminaries. Why?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: That meeting occurred on May 24, 1963, in the immediate aftermath the Birmingham crisis, which had sparked demonstrations across the country. The Kennedy administration had begun work on a civil rights bill with a great sense of urgency and against long odds of it passing, and they were preparing for showdown with George Wallace over the desegregation of University of Alabama. It was an explosive period.
When someone had suggested that RFK and Baldwin meet, Kennedy agreed. They had met a year or so before, and Kennedy had read Baldwin’s essay which was the basis for The Fire Next Time. A meeting was hastily put together and included several leading African American artists and public figures, and Jerome Smith, a young activist from Louisiana. Smith had been on the front lines of the movement for three years and bore the scares of a soldier in battle. Kennedy intended to discuss the administration’s efforts to secure a strong civil rights bill and seek advice on how to calm tensions in northern cities.
Jerome Smith was in no mood for pleasantries. Being in the room with you, he told the Attorney General, makes me want to vomit. Kennedy looked to the others. But moved by Smith, they joined in a litany of charges about the government’s failure to protect the rights and lives of Black citizens and its complicity with segregation. Kennedy tried to respond, but he was cut off. Finally, he just listened. It went on for three hours. Kenneth Clark described it as the most violent verbal assault he ever witnessed.
It was a searing experience for all involved. Kennedy left frustrated and angry. By 1963, he knew that conditions were intolerable, and he knew about the failures and limitations of the federal government. But he represented the government to this group, and once Smith began, the outrage and urgency released in the wake of Birmingham fueled the impatience and tension in the room. The heat of that moment reflected the enormity of the racial crisis, a situation that did not lend itself to a policy discussion.
Afterward, Kennedy commented to a close aide about Jerome Smith—and the horror he had experienced. Smith had reached him. When a group of reporters, referencing the meeting asked Kennedy if he was considering future meetings with Black groups, Kennedy said yes, before adding “but the main problem lies with the whites – they’re the ones who are denying Negro rights.”
Robin Lindley: Kennedy was curious and eager to learn, as you describe. As a senator he went to many different communities and investigated problems to learn more about what was happening in the country.
Professor Patricia Sullivan: Yes, as I noted earlier, for him, there was no substitute for seeing conditions firsthand and talking with people. As one civil rights activist said about Kennedy, “he went, he saw, he listened, he grew.” As a senator, he also used hearings as a platform – to gain information, to put a national spotlight on the conditions he was concerned about, and to help inform legislation and federal programs.
One of the most fascinating episodes I came across in my research were hearings by a Senate subcommittee Kennedy served on, which focused on the crisis in America’s cities. The hearings stretched over six weeks, divided between the summer and fall of 1966. The Senators heard from seventy witnesses, including cabinet officials, civil rights leaders, city planners, labor leaders, foundation officials, African America urban activists, police officers, clergy, and housing experts.
Although he was a member of the committee, Kennedy was the first person to testify, as the Senator from New York. He focused attention on the “epidemic” of poverty and unemployment, substandard housing, segregated and unequal education, and poor health care that plagued the segregated confines of African American urban areas. Towards the end of his testimony, he described plans for what would become the Bedford Stuyvesant project.
During the hearings Kennedy and Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who chaired the hearings, drew out testimony that illuminated the nature and depth of the crisis in urban areas and the need for expansive and targeted federal programs. The hearings exposed the inadequacy of the War on Poverty – both in terms of funding and coordination -- in beginning to meet the crisis.
There were many revealing moments, including when Kennedy engaged writer and long-time Harlem resident Ralph Ellison during his testimony. But the most powerful one occurred on the last day when Martin Luther King Jr. testified. The exchange between Kennedy and King illustrated how closely their understanding of America’s racial crisis aligned, and their concerns for the future. During his testimony, King famously warned that “Riots in the final analysis turn out to be the language of the unheard.”
Robin Lindley: And many of these issues of poverty, economic inequality, and systemic racism are still with us, unfortunately. You delve into the Kerner Commission report, which found that the US was two nations, separate and unequal. In many ways, that still seems to be the case. How do you see the timeliness now of Robert Kennedy and the meaning of his work, particularly in terms of civil rights?
Professor Patricia Sullivan: I completed Justice Rising at a time of reckoning that echoes the 1960s. Once again, mass protests have focused national attention on deep racial injustices and elevated demands for change. And states across the country have enacted an array of laws limiting access to voting after the Supreme Court overturned a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.
In the late 1960s, aggressive policing and mass incarceration ultimately prevailed in response to the urban rebellions sparked by intolerable conditions, lack of opportunity and police brutality. Underlying conditions in urban areas went largely unaddressed, and a bipartisan “War on Crime” came to dominate the politics of the post-civil rights era, with devastating consequences particularly for poor black and minority urban communities.
In recent years, cell phone videos brought instances of police violence to national and international attention, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement and culminating with demonstrations across the country. Protests have focused attention not only on police violence, but on deep and persistent racial inequities and their consequences.
As enduring racial injustices command attention and action, and the basic functioning of democracy is restricted by state legislatures and threatened by mob action, we should not lose sight of what was achieved during the 1960s and the legacy that endures. One of the most powerful social movements in American history, with deep roots in African American culture, through protests, organizing, and insistent demands, broke through. It elevated the consciousness of many and created both the pressure and the opportunity for government action to dismantle the Jim Crow system in the South and enact legislation broadening federal protection of citizenship rights and the right to vote. At the same time, the Black Freedom struggle grew, exposing the deep roots of racial inequality and its structural manifestations, and changing American culture in fundamental ways. America is once again in a racially and civically charged moment and this is a history with crucial lessons for a continuing struggle.
Robert Kennedy’s public life was forged in the reckoning of the sixties. Circumstances prompted him to face the consequences of the country’s racial past and the formative role of race in American life. His capacity to see, to learn, and to grow is testimony to what is possible. While Kennedy is often remembered for what he said, what he did and what he tried to do are most instructive.
After RFK’s assassination, James Baldwin reflected on how Robert Kennedy had helped foster faith in government and politics. He had a mind “that could be reached,” Baldwin commented. “He was somebody in the twentieth century with enough passion and energy and patience.” Such qualities remain essential in the meeting the challenges we face today.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those are powerful and inspiring words Professor Sullivan, and for sharing your insights on your work and your new book on Robert Kennedy and civil rights, Justice Rising. Congratulations on this extensive work of history. It’s sure to remain a significant reference and readers of all backgrounds will appreciate your compelling view of the sixties through the lens of RFK’s life and work.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He also served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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