Robert F. Kennedy, the Law & the Struggle for Racial Justice

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>William Jacobs:
Good afternoon. My name is William
Jacobs and I’m the Chief of the Interpretive
Programs Office. The Interpretive Programs
Office or IPO is responsible for the development
of new exhibitions and related educational programs
at the Library of Congress. Today’s event, co-sponsored
by IPO and the Law Library of Congress, is presented in
conjunction with the Library of Congress exhibition, “The
Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom”. This important exhibition
commemorates the 50th anniversary of the landmark
Civil Rights Act of 1964 that looks at events that
shaped the Civil Rights Movement and explores the
far-reaching impact of the act on a changing society. Located in the historic
Thomas Jefferson building across the street, the
exhibition has attracted more than 355,000 visitors
since it opened to the public last
fall on September 10th. In addition, educational
programming related to the exhibition held
to date it includes more than 135 exhibition tours
for groups of all types, nine gallery talks by library
specialists featuring items on display in the exhibition, a February 2015 public
film series featuring four full-length television
documentaries from the Civil Rights
era in celebration of Black History Month, a
public book talk and signing by author Clay Risen on his
book, “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for
the Civil Rights Act”, two onsite workshops,
and three online webinars for K-12 teachers focused on
teaching about Civil Rights with original and
digitized primary sources from the exhibition. The exhibition, funded
by a generous grant from Newman’s Own Foundation
and with additional support from History, has been extended
through January 2nd, 2016. Please check the library’s
website for visiting hours and continuously
updated information about upcoming educational
programs related to the exhibition. At this time, I’d
like to welcome and introduce our speaker,
Patricia A. Sullivan. Patricia Sullivan is a Professor
of History at the University of South Carolina and Director
of a series of summer institutes at Harvard University’s
WEB Du Bois Institute on Teaching the History of
the Civil Rights Movement. Her publications include,
“Lift Every Voice”, “The NAACP and the Making of the
Civil Rights Movement”, published in 2009, “Freedom
Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights
Years”, printed in 2003, and “Days of Hope:
Race and Democracy in the Deal Era”,
published in 1996. She is coeditor of the
“John Hope Franklin Series in African American History
and Culture” at the University of North Carolina Press. Prof. Sullivan also
served as one of the scholarly advisers
during the conceptual planning of the Civil Rights
Act exhibition. She will now share her
thoughts on her current project, a book on Robert F. Kennedy,
“Civil Rights and the Struggle for Racial Justice
in the 1960s”. Patricia? [Applause]>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
Thank you very much for that introduction
and to all of the folks in the Interpretive
Programs Office who created this remarkable
exhibit that working on it was such a pleasure and
I learned so much. And it’s wonderful that it
will be here through December. So I hope if you haven’t seen
it that you will go and see it. It’s really, really terrific. Thank you all for coming and
I thank my friends for coming. Today, it’s– the Civil Rights
Act stands as a living monument to the Civil Rights
Movement and that’s so beautifully demonstrated
in this exhibit. The exhibit captures a broad
sweep in dynamic history that culminated with the
Civil Rights Act in 1964, legislation that changed
America in fundamental ways, ending the racial class
system in the South and expanding federal
protection of citizenship rights that continues to
shape our lives and create new opportunities. The exhibit also
documents a history that is closely intertwined with America’s long
struggle with race. It includes a large flag, proclaiming a man was lynched
today, that would hang outside of the NAACP’s office
on 5th Avenue, documenting whenever a lynching
happened during the 1920s and 1930s. And it’s– really to see it, I was with Julia Mum
[assumed spelling], we saw it in the exhibit and
we both just froze to see it, it’s gigantic, hung way up. And it’s a summary reminder of
the depths of racial brutality and national indifference
that has marked our history. Recent incidents
of police violence and killings shine a light
on the persistent legacies and manifestations of America’s
ongoing racial dilemma. So, I welcome this opportunity
to talk with you today about Robert Kennedy and
his history in relationship to the Civil Right Act and the
movement that it grew from. Circumstances placed Robert
Kennedy in a unique position to respond to the challenges
and opportunities created by the Civil Rights Movement
at its most pivotal moment. First, some backgrounds
since I’ve been digging in the archives to
get a chance to talk about your project is dangerous,
you know, because you’re– yeah, but I think
it’s interesting to know what I’ve been
struck by, the combination of individual characteristics
and experiences that help explain more
about Kennedy’s development as a rare leader in
America’s long struggle for racial justice. He had the self-assuredness
and sense of entitlement common to a son of privilege. He was fiercely ambitious, though not for personal
recognition or advancement, and had a finely tuned
sense of right and wrong. Labeled a misfit by his
high school classmates, he did not hesitate to
go against the grain of established practices. He was compassionate and
demonstrated an ability to attract and cultivate people
who shared his dedication to public service like Peter
Edelman who joins us today. Most significantly, I
think is what colleagues and friends called his
experiencing nature. As one associate
recalled, he went, he saw, he listened, he grew. Born in 1925, Robert
Kennedy came of age at a time when segregation was becoming
more deeply entrenched throughout the country, even as the NAACP mounted
the protracted challenge of segregation in the
South that culminated with the 1954 Brown Ruling. The 1950s, the decade that Kennedy began
his professional life, marked the largest migration of
African-Americans from the South to the North and
West, the culmination of the great migration, which dramatically altered
the racial landscape of this country. By 1960, an estimated 48%
of black Americans lived in the North, trapped
in overcrowded housing, substandard schools,
minimal access to jobs, and aggressive policing. Prior to 1960, the year he’s
run around for president, Kennedy said he never
thought much about race. He grew up learning that there
are people less fortunate who had a difficult time,
both black and white, and that you had a
social responsibility for doing something about it,
yet an early confrontation with the color line
is revealing. In 1951, during his third year
in Law School at the University of Virginia, Kennedy
invited Ralph Bunche to speak at the university as a guest
to the Student Legal Forum. Bunche had just been awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the settlement of the
first Arab-Israeli war and Kennedy had traveled to the
war-torn area in 1948 on the eve of Israel’s establishment. So that’s I think what
attracted him to Bunche. Bunche accepted with
one condition, he would not address
a segregated audience. Segregation of public
gatherings was a law in Virginia at that time. There was tremendous
opposition on campus to such an arrangement, Kennedy
later recalled, and students on the Legal Forum were
divided about what to do. Determined that Bunche
would visit and believed that the policy was wrong, Kennedy wrote a letter appealing
directly to the president of the university,
Colgate Darden, and I’m quoting for
that– from that. “The segregation policy in
this instance,” he wrote, “is legally indefensible
and morally wrong.” He cited the recent
Supreme Court decision, McLaurin versus Oklahoma,
a 1950 ruling which barred racial
segregation of students within the university. Kennedy advised,
“While the University of Virginia offers a public
lecture open to citizens of the state, it cannot
require college citizens in attending these addresses to
be seated in segregated areas.” In his letter, Kennedy
explain that the audience for the forum events ran
from 300 to 400 people and that it wasn’t
likely that more than 30 or 40 blacks would attend. Darden agreed to a temporary
suspension of the policy. On Easter Monday,
Kennedy introduced Bunche to an overflow crowd of more
1,500 people in Cabell Hall on the grounds of
the university. An estimated 500
of them were black. This was the first public
integrated meeting of its kind on the grounds of the
University of Virginia. Also, there was no hotel
accommodation for Ralph Bunche in Charlottesville so
he stayed with Bobby and his new wife Ethel, and it was the beginning
of a long friendship. It was not until 1960 that
the issue of race moved to the center of
Kennedy’s attention, the year that Kennedy
directed his brother’s campaign for the presidency. That year, as you know, the
sit-ins ignited student protests and expanding activism
across the South, protests that would soon
turn national attention to conditions in the region. However, for presidential
candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the black
vote in electoral route to northern and western
states vastly increased by the migration of the
’50s was of primary concern and offering the movement
some critical leverage. As he navigated the fault lines
dividing southern Democrats and northern black voters, 34-year-old Robert Kennedy
was exposed to social and political realities
that had beyond– had been beyond his
vision and concern. I just want to take a brief look at several episodes
during the 1960 campaign that reveal a sensibility
beyond political calculation, which was important. I forgot to show
you the picture. I’m not paying attention to
my notes, but there he is with Ralph Bunche
at the university. And I like this picture
of the campaign and he was a hard worker,
so this is probably out of character, but
anyway, there he is. So, the Kennedy campaign created
the first Civil Rights division affiliated with a major party
with an integrated staff that included Marjorie Lawson,
an attorney and a columnist for the Pittsburg
Courier and wife for the Civil Rights attorney
Belford Lawson, Harris Wofford, a young constitutional
law professor who had a personal acquaintance
with Martin Luther King and was the first white person
to attend Harvard Law School, and Lewis Martin, who had been
a leading labor organizer, NAACP activist and newspaper
publisher in Detroit. During the 1960 Democratic
Convention, Robert Kennedy approved
the Civil Rights Plank that went far beyond
anything offered previously. It reads, it’s three pages
long and reads like a blueprint for the Civil Rights
Act of 1964. Harris Wofford and Chester
Bowles had drafted the far-reaching in document
assuming it would be rejected by Kennedy. A more modest version
was ready to go. They were surprise and delighted
when Kennedy endorsed the plank, leading strong and determined
to charge that it was “the most extreme,
unconstitutional, and anti-southern
platform ever conceive by a major political party.” Even the NAACP has never
proposed more drastic steps. So there are several
interesting examples that show Robert Kennedy
pressing at the edges and his brother working to
placate southern Democrats. I want to mention
one in particular and then one– a
more familiar one. But one that I really think
is fascinating is an account by George Peek who has worked on
the southern campaign for JFK, he was an aide to George
Smather, and recalls a trip with Robert Kennedy
through Georgia to Savannah. This is Peek. The advanced man had
a route to the hotel. Bobby said, “Is it through
the black part of town?” We said, “No.” He said, “Well, I want to go
through the black part of town.” So we did, we changed
the trip into Savannah. Then when we got there, the
first thing he asks me was, find out how many blacks we’re
going to have here tonight. Well, I knew we weren’t
going to have any because that hotel will not
have blacks in those days. I went back to him
and said we weren’t. He said, well, we’re not going to have dinner unless you
get some blacks here, OK? So he went about inviting
some blacks that evening. He was very difficult to
work with, very difficult. [Laughter] Shortly
after that incident, and this is more well-known, this is really the
only thing people talk about in relationship
to the 1960 campaign as very significant, Martin
Luther King was arrested and jailed following
a sit-in demonstration in Atlanta just weeks
before the election. King, yet to be the major
national figure he would become, was sent to a prison in
rural Reed Field, Georgia, and there was a great
concern for his safety. At the urging of Harris Wofford, John F. Kennedy phoned
Coretta Scott King to express his concern. Independently, Robert
Kennedy called the judge who had denied King his
constitutional right to bail and apparently chewed him out. RFK’s call secured
King’s release. On the Sunday before
the election, and Harris Wofford does a great
story about putting these fliers on Graham buses and
shipping them all over so they could be
distributed to black churches on Sunday describing what
the Kennedy’s had done for Martin Luther King, many blacks including
Martin Luther King Sr. voted for John F. Kennedy as a result. And it is likely, and Jonathan
also thinks this is true, that the black vote provided
the margin of victory for John F. Kennedy in the
closest presidential election in American history
up to that point. Now this story would end there if Robert Kennedy had not
yielded to the pressure put on him by his father and
brother and accepted a position in his brother’s cabinet
as attorney general. This had major consequences
for the history of this era and the circumstances
surrounding the Civil Rights Act. The transformation of
the Justice Department in relationship to the Civil
Rights Movement began on the day that Robert Kennedy
met John Doar, a [inaudible] Midwestern
lawyer and Republican holdover who had joined and pledge to the civil rights
division the previous July. No one else would take the job. He was the third
person they asked. It was the end of the
Eisenhower administration. The division had
been established for the 1957 Civil Rights Act,
a water dam bill conceived to remedy voting rights
abuses in the South. But it did give the Justice
Department some jurisdiction in voting rights cases. Doar and a small group of
lawyers in the division worked to develop a government
strategy capable of effectively prosecuting
violations of voting rights. Reliance on FBI reports
were a problem. They didn’t include any
facts, Doar complained. Frustrated by a flimsy report
on the mass eviction of blacks who had attempted to register
to vote in Haywood County, Tennessee, Doar who had been
a personal injury lawyer for 10 years decided to go
South and see for himself. Armed with a camera, he met
with the evicted sharecroppers, documented their stories, took
pictures, and filed a lawsuit in federal court that September. This would mark an important
turning point in the work of the Civil Rights division. On January 19th, 1960, the day
before JFK was inaugurated, the Civil Rights division filed
a lawsuit regarding the case of Joseph Francis
Atlas, a black farmer in East Carroll Parish,
Louisiana. Doar again had gone South to
investigate this case and found that Atlas had testified– Before the Civil Rights
Commission in New Orleans, he was invited to testify
about the fact that no blacks in East Carroll Parish voted. And after he was done, local ginners refused
to gin his cotton. He had about 100 acres. He and his wife had raised
and educated eight children and they faced financial ruin. Robert, And this is Doar’s
remembering, Robert Kennedy came to my office the second or third
day after JFK was inaugurated to find out what was
going on in the division. Doar told them about the
case of Joseph Francis Atlas. “He picked a bad place
to start,” Kennedy said. “Well, that’s where Atlas
grows his cotton,” he said. And he explained how when Atlas
returned from the hearings in new Orleans, the
sheriff met him at his door, he told the farmer not to
bring his cotton to any ginner in East Carroll Parish. When Atlas asked why, the
sheriff responded, Civil Rights. For the next week or so,
Doar recalled, Kennedy worked to persuade the ginners of
the parish to gin the cotton and finally secured
an agreement. Doar advised that this
would not be sufficient. Without a court in junction,
the agreement would be ignored. Kennedy worked out an
arrangement whereby all of the ginners would appear
before Judge Dawkins in Monroe, Louisiana and pledged not to
deprive Atlas of the goods and services he needed
to run his farm. And he sent Doar to Monroe
to appear before the judge and witness the agreement
on the part of the ginners. Think of it, Doar
recalled, 50 years later, the attorney general from
the first day put his mind and his effort and his
energy and drive just to help one cotton farmer
in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana gin his cotton. That was a good omen
for this country. Doar would play a
major role in building and leading the Civil
Rights division, working under the assistance
of the attorney general for Civil Rights, the quiet and enormously talented
Burke Marshall. On March 6th, Kennedy
presided over a total review of the Justice Department’s
approach to Civil Rights. There would be no immediate
legislation introduced given congressional and
political realities. Energy effort and brains would
be dedicated to pushing as far as they could on the current
Civil Rights legislation using the persuasive and legal
pair of the administration to secure compliance with
the segregation rulings and voter registration laws. Immediate attention was given
to getting the government to, in Kennedy’s words,
clean up its own act and hire black employees. Robert Kennedy wrote to
all the major law schools, asking the deans “to
furnish me with the names of qualified negro
attorneys of your acquaintance who might be interested in
coming to the department. We’re also interested in encouraging promising
law students to consider making
a career here. Voting was a top priority. Doar’s get out the roadmaps and
go was a very Kennedy approach and it appealed to Robert
Kennedy, and will be central to the work that defined
a vastly expanded Civil Rights division. Kennedy approved the
hiring of more lawyers that he quadrupled the number
of lawyers in the division. And the division mounted what
was in effect a field operation. Lawyers spent weeks at a
time in the Deep South, investigating court records
and registration documents, interviewing blacks, and
developing a relationship with SNCC and local
Civil Rights activists. And this was Kennedy’s idea,
they put a map up in the office with colored pins, indicating
trouble spots and places where cases have been filed. Doar recalled that RFK’s mantra
was, you’re not doing enough. He wanted cases in every
county in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. By 1963, the division
had filed 34 suits against county registrars
for discrimination in voter registration
and had 48 other counties under investigation. It had filed 12 suits seeking
injunctions against intimidation with another eight
under investigation. It had examined voter
registration records in 27 counties in Alabama,
50 counties in Mississippi, and 27 counties in Louisiana. Still, in the short-term,
accelerated efforts on voting rights on
the voting rights front and escalating battles around
racial segregation pressed at the limits of federal
power and tested the capacity of the Kennedy administration to meet a mounting
crisis in the south. The state-sanctioned violence
that met the freedom writers in the spring of 1961 was
Robert Kennedy’s baptism. He soon found out that
the FBI had failed to disclose information that
they had on plans by the clan with the cooperation
of local police to assault the writers
in Alabama. During a mass meeting at
the First Baptist Church in Montgomery honoring
the writers, a mob of several thousand
surrounded the church, trapped over 1,000 people inside
and threatened to burn it down. Robert Kennedy spent a tense
late night on the phone with martin Luther king
who was inside the church. While his appeals to Alabama
Governor James Paterson, who had been a big supporter of
John F. Kennedy’s, were ignored. At the very last minute, federal
marshals dispersed the mob, people with no experience
in mob control, barely averting an
unspeakable human disaster. As a result of the
freedom riots, Kennedy’s– Kennedy mandated that the ICC
enforce the Supreme Court ruling banning segregation
on intestate commerce, interstate travel a minor
victory in an ongoing battle. And I just read recently
that Kennedy’s never spoke to John Paterson again. Efforts to implement
school desegregation in the South was a further test. Kennedy’s first speech– public
speech was at the University of Georgia where two black
students, Charleyne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes that
integrated the university that January, and he said
probably the first federal official on southern
ground that Brown was a law and the administration would
enforce Civil Rights laws. He spent his first
months in office working with Louisiana officials
successfully to avoid a school shutdown in
the face of school desegregation in that state, and the
Justice Department filed a suit against Prince Edward County which had closed their
schools rather than desegregate and transferred the public
money to support private schools for white children, leaving no
schools for the black children in that community since 1959. And Burke Marshall and John
Seigenthaler would go around and meet with these
various communities and try to persuade them to comply and
if not bring legal pressure. The limits of the administration’s approach
were amplified in a number of ways, but especially in
Mississippi in October of 1962 where the actions of a defiant
Governor Ross Barnett incited violent resistance through the
admission of James Meredith, leaving two people dead and compelling the
Kennedy administration to send federal troops
to restore order and secure Meredith’s admission. So by early 1963, it all
seemed like patchwork at best, as the racial conflict in the South escalated
towards a breaking point. Now during the same period,
Robert Kennedy’s concern about poverty and
racial segregation that he apparently had witnessed
during the presidential campaign deepened. After a CBS interview in
Midtown, Manhattan earlier in ’61, he walked up to
Harlem where he talked with young people and
observed physical conditions of the poor segregated
urban neighborhood. As Peter Edelman said to me
once, Bobby loved to walk, and I love that example. In his speech given
shortly after that to the National Committee for
Children and Youth Conference of Unemployed Out-of-School
Youth in Urban Areas that may, he commented on the
interrelated problems of school dropout rates,
youth unemployment, and rising prison rates
for young people under 22, and emphasized the importance
of dealing with the sources of delinquency as opposed
to the end results. That spring, Kennedy enlisted
his friend David Hackett to coordinate a program
to study the cases– the causes of juvenile
delinquency and develop programs
to aid youth. This resulted in
the establishment of the President’s Commission
on Juvenile Delinquency, an interagency program housed
in the Justice Department. Hackett drew on the
expertise of social scientists like Richard Cloward and
Lloyd Ohlin, and the work of Kenneth Clark in Harlem
in fashioning a program that funded locally
initiated pilot projects. The projects aim to mobilize the
resources of a particular city to address the problems
of youth, problems that they concluded
was structural and historical, rooted in lack of access to
decent education and healthcare, rampant unemployment, poor
recreational facilities, racial discrimination,
and long-term poverty. During 1961 and ’62, Robert
Kennedy visited each one of these pilot projects and
there were an estimated 16, I’m still trying to
identify what they all were. Hackett recalled that neither
he nor Kennedy had ever been involved up close with poverty
or with Negros prior to this, and they were shocked,
as they began to see what the conditions
were like around the country. Urban poverty became the
focus of Hackett’s group and the concept of
community action and empowering the
poor became central to the anti-poverty program
that was in development– in the developmental stage when John F. Kennedy
was assassinated. By at the end of 1962 then,
Robert Kennedy began speaking about racial segregation and
discrimination as a national, not a regional problem. In March of ’63,
addressing the gathering– the Commemoration
of the Centennial of the Emancipation
Proclamation in Kentucky, he told the gathering
that the problems created by racial discrimination
were massive. He continued, the results of
racial discrimination carry on for generation
after generation. To face this openly and try to meet it squarely is the
challenge of this decade. Martin Luther King had begun
his campaign in Birmingham and within weeks said that it
was edging towards what would seem like a race war. During the first week of May, images of the city’s
police assaulting hundreds of protesting black
youth with dogs and high-pressure fire
hoses blanketed the nation and were beamed across
the world, thrusting America’s
racial conflict to the forefront of
public awareness. Police violence, mob
terror, and the bombing of the hotel housing Martin
Luther King Jr. brought thousands of blacks into
the streets of Birmingham and ignited pent-up
despair and anger in America’s urban areas
across the country. A wave of mass demonstrations
amplified the prophetic warning in James Baldwin’s
“The Fire Next Time”, which had been published
several months earlier. Birmingham brought
urgent efforts to push beyond normal channels
and find the nations capacity to resolve a problem woven
deep into American life. On May 17th, Robert Kennedy and
Burke Marshall outlined plans for a Civil Rights Bill. And the Justice Department
lawyers began drafting legislation. Kennedy initiated and attended
endless rounds of meetings in Washington and New York. At the same time, he lobbied
national business leaders to voluntarily end segregation
in their southern-based stores, movie theaters, and
other public facilities. There were small private
meetings with national, civic, business, philanthropic,
and political leaders to build support for a major
Civil Rights legislation. On May 24th, in a
highly unusual meeting, he met with a small
group of black activists and artists convened
by James Baldwin, hoping to seek their
advice on what could be done to counter the appeal of Malcolm
X and other militant groups. And, you know, you had a sense
when you’re in this period that things are on edge. The gathering– And I’ve
spent a lot of time on this, but just a little bit, but it
quickly dissolved into an attack on the failure of the Kennedy
administration to do more and to effectively
address the depths of the racial crisis
throughout the country, racial discrimination. At several points,
he tried to intervene and shift the conversation
and it didn’t work, so he retreated into silence. By all accounts, the meeting, it
went on and they just unloaded on him about everything. By all accounts, the meeting
was a remarkable display, and we don’t pay enough
attention to this, of the divide in experience and understanding
for someone even as– well, you know, interested and
concerned as Robert Kennedy and his black contemporaries. Kenneth Clark said, “We might as well have been speaking
different languages.” “But,” he added, “the
fact that Bobby sat there through such an ordeal for
three hours,” in his house, his apartment, Clark commented,
“proved that he was among, he was among,” and this what
some Lorraine Hansberry said to him, if you don’t get
it, we’re in big trouble because you are among the best
white America has to offer. A week later, Robert Kennedy
was with the president when John F. Kennedy decided
that he would go ahead and introduce comprehensive
Civil Rights legislation, a tough decision that
Kennedy acknowledged– John F. Kennedy acknowledged
as morally right and essential to meeting this crisis. But he told his brother that
it would probably be his political swansong. There’s a real concern that
it will cost him the election and all of his aides
thought that and they told him not to do it. But he wanted to wait until
after the desegregation of the University of Alabama on June 11th before
acting on this decision. That afternoon, following
the peaceful inauguration of the university, he decided
to go on television at 7 o’clock and announce plans to
introduce the Civil Rights Bill. So there’s much frantic activity
for several hours as he worked with his brother and Speechwriter Ted Sorensen
sketching out what he would say. President Kennedy’s
June 11th speech, parts of it written down, most
of it spoken extemporaneously, reflected the strong
influence of his brother. There were echoes of Robert
Kennedy’s South Carolina speech and interestingly,
Kenneth Clark will stunned and somewhat reassured to
hear phrases and concerns that they had expressed
during their meeting with Robert Kennedy woven
into the president’s speech. It’s an amazing, wonderful,
extraordinary speech which everyone should read. The president described
the human toll of America’s racial past and
the lost futures of children who are attending segregated
schools, nearly a decade after the Brown Ruling. He spoke with deep conviction
about the urgency of the moment “the fires of frustration
and discord are burning in every city, North
that South.” And he insisted that there
was a moral imperative to act. This is a problem that faces us
all, not merely as presidents, congressmen, or governors, but every citizen of
the United States. And again, just to
highlight this period, just hours after he gave this
speech, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway and
killed in Jackson, Mississippi. On June 26, 1963, HR 7152
was introduced in the House of Representatives and as head
of the Sponsoring Department, Robert Kennedy was
the first to testify. Burke Marshall recalled,
told Victor Navasky, when President Kennedy sent
up that Civil Rights Bill, every single person who spoke
about it in the White House, every one of them was against
President Kennedy sending up that bill, against
his speech in June, against making it a moral issue. The conclusive voice within
the government at that time, there is no question
about it at all, that Robert Kennedy was the one. He urged it, he felt it, he
understood it, and he prevailed. I don’t think that
there was anyone in the cabinet except the
president himself who felt that way on these issues. And the president got
it from his brother. Now someone told me
that in the exhibit, there’s a film showing
Kennedy being– deciding whether to make the
speech or not and the look on his face and his
brother working with him to bring him to agree
to do that. So it’s right down that exhibit,
you can see how this plays out. So, work towards the bill– the bipartisan collation for the
bill begins and the books by– the Wayland’s [inaudible]
book on the bill and Risen and Todd Purdum, kind of getting
to the nitty-gritty of that. A lot of it happens
under the Kennedy watch, they get McCullough
lined up immediately, and then just the tough work
of patching that together. But it’s again important
to remember, as the bill moves forward, we
have the march on Washington which captivates the nation and
King’s “I have a dream” speech, and then on September 15th– I’m
going to go to my PowerPoint. Sorry. I’m technically
challenged here. I want to move forward. That’s ’63, a rally that spring. But I don’t want to
put that up there. The Klansmen bomb, it was right after school desegregation
finally began in Alabama, George Wallace tried to oppose
it, he couldn’t stop it, the schools are being
desegregated, and Klansmen bombed the
16th Street Baptist Church that September, killing
four girls aged 11 to 14. The day after the
bombing of the church, the Prince Edward Country Free
School opened in Farmville, fulfilling Robert
Kennedy’s efforts. For the first time in four
years, 1,500 black children in Prince Edward County
were able to attend school. Of course, as we know, President
Kennedy was assassinated that November 22nd. Lyndon Johnson made passage
of the Civil Rights Bill, John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights
Bill, his first priority. No memorial, oration, or eulogy
could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory
than that earliest passage of the Civil Rights Bill for
which he fought for so long. He failed to add with
the steadfast help and work of his brother. The political master worked in
tandem with a remarkable array of forces, most significantly
the team that Kennedy had built in the Civil Rights division. I read an interview by Frank
Valeo, who was Secretary of the Senate then and
he said, Burke Marshall and Nicholas Katzenbach, I mean
they knew the bill inside-out, they lobby very effectively,
they were as important, if not more important
than Lyndon Johnson. Now I don’t think we
need to assign credit, but it’s important to
think of this foundation. And I’ve heard it said
that they wouldn’t have– it wouldn’t have passed
without Lyndon Johnson. Well, it wouldn’t have been
a bill without the Kennedy’s. And I think the work of
the Civil Rights division that Robert Kennedy built
is enormously important and overlooked to
a great extent, and of course this remarkable
coalition that comes together and helps to see this
bill pass a filibuster. The bill passed on– passed
the Senate just about the end of the day, its introduction the
previous June, and on July 2nd, Lyndon Johnson signed
the Civil Rights Act, one of the most important
and transformative laws in the history of
the United States. Two weeks later,
a police shooting of James Pal [assumed spelling],
a 15-year-old black teenager in New York City, ignited
race riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant,
signaling a turn that revealed the fragility of
the coalition that had grown up during in 1960s
and preview to a new, even more challenging phase of America’s long
struggle with race. Shortly before he left the
department to run for Senate in August of 1964, Robert
Kennedy met with Lyndon Johnson and then he followed it up with
a memo urging the president to convene a conference
of mayors and begin to systematically address
America’s city’s, housing, education, poverty,
criminal justice issues. Elected to the Senate
from New York that fall, Robert Kennedy emerged
as a political leader in his own right during
a transitional time for the country and for
Kennedy in aftermath of his brother’s assassination. Jack Newfield has commented
or commented in his book, “Experience began to
stretch, Bobby Kennedy, tragedy transformed him.” In ways similar to Martin
Luther King, Kennedy began to concentrate attention
on the deep-rooted racial, economic inequities, and
injustices that had been exposed by the Civil Rights Movement and
did not lend themselves to easy or to clearer solutions. And they both worked
to cultivate and expand upon the promise
of the Civil Rights years. This Kennedy speaking. “We have gone as for as goodwill and even good legislation
will take us. We must now act to bring about
changes in the conditions which breed intolerance
and discrimination”, he commented late in
the spring of 1965. In August ’65, a riot
in the Watts section of Los Angeles just five days after Lyndon Johnson signed
the Voting Rights Act, marked the most deadly
and destructive riots in American history, once again
ignited by long-term problems of police violence and abuses. Five days of rioting claimed
34 lives and $400 million– $40 million in property damage. Kennedy and his aide,
Peter Edelman went– traveled to Los Angeles,
where they confronted– and I think I’ve got
this little phrase right, what Peter Edelman described as the warzone here
in our own country. Former President Eisenhower
echoed a growing refrain claiming that the problem facing
American cities was the need for greater respect for the law. I’ll go back to this. All right. Kennedy countered,
there’s no point in telling Negroes
to obey the law. To many Negroes, the
law is the enemy. In Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, it has almost always
been used against them. In the aftermath of Watts, King
turns his head into Chicago with his campaign to end slums and Robert Kennedy
initiated plans of what would become the
Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Project, a bold experiment– a
bold public-private partnership which is much written about and it’s fascinating,
a remarkable effort. The first community development
corporation of the country, it was organized around
a systematic attack on ghetto conditions. Programs focused of job
training and creation, housing restoration
and construction, health and recreation,
schooling, economic development. Kennedy said early on, you
know, problems in factions and because the community
was directly, you know, had full partnership in this
when they were fundraising, people they raised money from, government money,
philanthropists. So Kennedy said early on, I’m
not sure it’s going to work but it’s going to
test some new ideas, some new ways of doing things. Even if we fail, we’ll have
learned, but more important than that, something
must be done. People like myself can’t go around making nice
speeches all the time. We’ve got– We have to do
some damn hard work too. Problems of race and poverty
and of faith in the capacity of Americans to act
collectively to begin to remedy these injustice–
injustices were at the center of Robert Kennedy’s
public life as a senator, and his presidential candidacy. He traveled to cities
around the country. He exposed himself to the depths of rural poverty
in the Deep South. Here he is with of Marian
Wright Edelman in Mississippi, where he traveled
in ’67 and horrified by the poverty he saw there, and
to the conditions and struggles against the poverty
in South Africa. In one of his last
speeches given the day after Martin Luther
King was killed, and that’s the night
King was killed, he gave an amazing speech
off the back of a truck, which everyone should read. And the next morning,
he gave one more speech, the last until King was– until
the funeral, but he wanted to talk about what he called
the mindless menace of violence. And just to phrase from
that remarkable speech, he spoke about the kind of
violence that was slower but just as deadly, destructive
as the shot or the bomb in the night, this is the
violence in institutions, indifference, and in
action and slow decay. This is the violence
that affects the poor, and poisons relations
between men because their skin
has different colors. This is the slow destruction
of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without
heat in the winter. The question is whether we
can find in our own midst and our own hearts that
leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible
truths of our existence. But I want to end on another
note that was equally part of his approach and feeling
about the moment he was living and working in, words to the young anti-apartheid
activist he visited in South Africa in June of 1966, which really I think
captured the spirit of the Civil Rights
legacy– Movement’s legacy, as well as Robert Kennedy’s. The road toward equality
and freedom is not easy and great cost and
danger march alongside us. Still, even in the turbulence
of protest and struggle, there is greater hope for the
future as men learn to claim and achieve for themselves
the rights formally petitioned by others. Thank you. [ Applause ] Some questions? Questions, comments? Yes?>>On the map you showed,
there was a lot of Department of Justice action in
Mississippi and Alabama. And I was just curious
why not so much in Georgia or South Carolina? Why was that [inaudible]
chosen by Kennedy and–>>That was actually all
throughout the South, but they had a– he wanted, you
know, cases in every country in those three Deep
South states. I guess they will
consider it the, you know, the most resistant and toughest. And it was Mississippi who
had a major project going on with SNCC. So, it wasn’t that it weren’t in
other countries but there was a, you know, a concentrated
effort given their, you know, resources and lawyer power. But I haven’t read a
specific explanation of that. But I would assume that was it. And I’m sorry, I’ll
repeat the question. That was a question about why
the Justice Department map, the pins were concentrated
in three states and whether the Justice
Department was active in other states in the South? Yes?>>The Kennedy’s did not
like President Johnson or Vice President Johnson. What do you think Bob Kennedy
thought towards Johnson after passing the
Civil Rights Act? Did he change opinion?>>You know, I think personally,
I mean– as we all get older, we know there are people
we don’t get along with, there are conflicts
and tensions. I think too much attention
in terms the relationship between John F. Kennedy
and Lyndon Johnson, I think we get too
caught up in that. I think that, you know, one
thing that really strikes me after knowing this history more,
how cold Lyndon Johnson was to him when he signed
the Civil Rights Act. Robert Kennedy made it
possible for Lyndon Johnson to have that bill to sign. That is a fact of
history which– And I think that’s important. How they felt about each other? That’s deeply psychological,
personal, it did not inhibit
this work, you know, and I think that’s
important too. But I think it’s important for
scholars to really look at. And the other thing is that, you
know, as Robert Kennedy develops and evolves and opens up
his concerns to the nature of racial inequality and the
deep problem this country had, historically grounded
and structural. Lyndon Johnson, his response
to the urban violence, his response, you know, we
had money going to the war in Vietnam, poverty
funds shrinking, so very different paths that they both travel during
this post Civil Rights Voting Rights period. And Robert Kennedy’s leadership and growth during this era is
very significant and important in terms of thinking about his
role in the 1960s around these– the struggles and issues. Peter.>>Can you talk a little
bit more about the– both President Kennedy
and RFK’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement
in terms of finally handing out to the president and making
the proposal for the ’64 Act?>>Patricia A. Sullivan: The
relationship of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy to the Civil
Rights Movement, you know, that’s– I hope to learn more
about that as I go forward. I think it’s better than
we’ve been led to believe. And I also think historians
have been too quick to kind of take the perspective of
the activist on the ground, which is important, you know,
what they’re going through and what they’re experiencing. And not realizing
the– what was– they were trying to do at
federal level and the kind of constraints that existed. So– But I do know that
Robert Moses now talks about John Doris, this lawyer. And he talks about, you know,
what it meant to have access. They had clear access to the Civil Rights
Division at all times. And I interviewed
Thelton Henderson who was the only African
American attorney hired to– well, the first, and
this is something, to work in the field,
on this field team. And he told me– he got
to know, of course, King. He had to stay in the hotels
where a lot of the– in– especially in Birmingham,
the Gaston. That he felt that movement
people knew the Kennedy administration was
responsive and that helped to generate the momentum
of the movement. So I think that’s a
great question and I hope that the work I’m doing will
help open it up and sort of contextualize it a
bit more than looking at this side, that side. Our country. I mean the segregation– you
know, the way people felt about this issue, how
deeply entrenched it was, and this is democracy, right? The political challenges
were huge. And when they were debating
that bill, what was happening in the north around the World’s
Fair and all, at one point, McCullough says the deal was
off if they protest at the– you know, blocked traffic
to the World’s Fair. So the context is very fragile. And I think what you see with– in the Kennedy administration
is this, especial the Civil
Rights Division and Robert Kennedy pushing,
trying to find ways to go. But that relationship I think, I
hope I can take a closer look at and have something
fresh to say, thanks.>>The video clip from
the exhibit was used a lot because it’s very reflective
of that relationship, the Kennedy relationship. Bobby was the only
one that spoke up and said you have
to give a speech. And it’s a fly on the
wall documentation.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
That’s right.>>Of the relationship. And then the subsequent
clip of the speech itself when Kennedy [inaudible] went
contemporaneous without a script for four minutes and that speech
on live TV in a convincing way.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
Oh yeah, he –>>Without mentioning the act at
all, but focusing on community and activity in the community
and the need for racial justice. That is a real key. For those that haven’t
seen that, [inaudible] taken
a moment of that–>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
That’s right.>>– that fly on the
wall, why they were there with that camera at that time. I just don’t see
that insider view.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
You know, I think that– I think that’s so terrific
that there’s a film of this discussion about should
he give the speech that night. The– I think that’s what
you call crisis and sort of a cinema verite
where a camera who follows George Wallace all
that day and Robert Kennedy. And I think maybe they
were the ones who filmed that episode in–
when they were talking about whether to
give the speech. I’m going to run and go and see.>>I can go back and see that–>>Patricia A. Sullivan: Yeah.>>– because I think that’s
real key to that relationship and how things proceeded.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
No, very important. It’s wonderful that it’s here. And that– Can that be
obtained online as well?>>I think it’s online.>>Not yet.>>We’re working on it.>>Patricia A. Sullivan: OK. That would be great. I mean for teaching, it would
be terrific for teaching. Yes. OK.>>I wonder if there was
that three-hour meeting with intellectuals and artists, was it a one time
only conversation or did these conversations with those people
continue [inaudible]? If not, [inaudible] they
still opened up a dialogue. Or was it just that one time?>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
That’s a great question. If– The people that Robert
Kennedy met with James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte [assumed
spelling], Lena Horne, number about 10 people in
the end of May of 1963. He and Belafonte continued. I mean he felt that Belafonte
didn’t step up, you know, during that discussion. He thought that Belafonte
knew him. But– So it was just
so divisive. But I don’t have any
evidence that he and Baldwin– They weren’t, you
know, they met and all. And again, this period,
it’s so intense. I think Kenneth Clark, Kenneth
Clark really respect Robert Kennedy and he thought he got it about education and
about children. So– But I should
trace that out. I don’t know for sure, yup. Yes.>>What do you think are
the most important lessons for young advocates who are
still working on the issues of racial discrimination and police brutality [inaudible]
could learn from Robert Kennedy?>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
What are the lessons for people working today around
issues of police brutality and violence that we’re seeing? What can they learn
from Robert Kennedy? I think first of all, what,
people even facing issue, right? I mean just facing the issue
and trying to understand it. You know, going,
talking to people, and trying to build a
collective response. You know what I mean,
to deal with the abuses and the violations of law. But then how do we
organize ourselves locally, starting locally,
and as a country because these are the issues that we’re left in
the late ’60s. I mean it’s really
eerie to think about how similar they are. But I think that’s– And to
understand too the long haul. That’s what I tell my
students, it’s the long haul. It’s really. What– We’ve been– We’ve
lived with a lot of this, but we have had tremendous
change. And Robert Kennedy, how he lived
his life and faced the issues and worked actively to do
his part and work with people to begin to make some changes, not just around criminal
justice issues but education. All these things are
connected, that he was concerned about in this part of his life, so to work on the
various community issues that also are such a problem. Do you have a thought
about that though yourself?>>I think, you know,
we still face– I think that the
perception of what happens in the police brutality issues. I think that it’s still
very racially divided based on experience because
people are [inaudible]. I think that in terms of
domestic transportation issue, that’s another racially
divided issue because I think that the perception of
people who don’t deal with racial conflict on a
day-to-day basis is that– well, the people who deal
with those isolate events. They’re isolated. You know, they only
happen sometime, it’s because of their
characters, because they’re [inaudible]. But then when you
think of the holistic, like what you’re saying
about education and community and environment, there’s so many
different reasons why people may end up in those type
of situations, whether it’d be going to jail or
being suspended by the police. And I think that
lack of perception, that lack of knowledge
and that lack of experience just
creates an unwillingness to accept what’s
happening for people who don’t live in
those situations.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
You said– That’s– Thank you for that,
lack of knowledge, lack of experience,
lack of caring too. That litany he read
or said at his– and he said that in a number
of places about the difference between the gap between what
African Americans and whites, you know, in all areas. Like, that continues the measure
of, you know, of the difference in economic opportunity,
educational access, income, you know, dealings
with the police. So, you know, we need
to look at our history and understand who we are. You know, and that’s
what he said. He said when he spoke after
King, who are we as a country? And people really need to look at our history to
understand that. And where do we want
to go, you know. And I think looking at this
in this larger context can add to that in this moment. Yes?>>I think that one of the lessons was people
should take more walks.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
I think that’s true too, take more walks. Yes. Marilyn.>>Just one. First, thank you so much– [ Inaudible ]>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
That’s– Yeah. That’s– And that
really is what’s at the center of their concern. And Peter Edelman, not
to put you on the spot but I’ve read there’s
several places that– I mean, thinking about– I’ve been really interested in
how King and Kennedy are kind of moving in very
similar directions. They didn’t see a lot
of each other and all, but they’re really– and the
Poor People’s Campaign that you and Marian had been visiting
with Robert and Ethel Kennedy and he suggested to
Marian that she’d tell King to bring the poor
people to Washington and stay there until– and Marian goes to the
SCLC Convention that summer and the Poor People’s
Campaign is launched. So, maybe Dr. King
was thinking about. But the important thing is
they’re thinking along the same ways. And that thing about
yourself, people have got to make demands, right? I mean, who represents poor
people, poor people, right? That’s a huge– Would you
like to speak to that point that Marilyn made
about what to do? I mean, you teach
a poverty seminar about the current
economic crisis and how that affects– Yeah. [ Inaudible ] No, that’s important.>>And going back to
the act side of it, the ways in which the
inequality has just exacerbated so many other, other problems. And I do think that there’s
a– just like you said, like there’s a– sort of
a disconnect with– of– at least we’ll see what
comes out of these current and recent events but it’s a
very [inaudible] while we’re at it, talking about gender.>>Patricia A. Sullivan: Right. Race and gender. Yes. Great. [ Inaudible ] I think– What’s the
legacy of Robert Kennedy? I think it’s that– well, the
work he was doing right then at the end of his life is left
for us to do now, you know. I mean, that he was doing it. And, you know, that experiencing
nature, I love that note, she lived in his world. And, you know, he
said at one point, you don’t make the
world, you inherited it. You inherit, but you
live in it, and you need to do what you can while
you’re here, you know. So, you didn’t create
the problems, fine, but you’re living here now. And I think that approach
and that sort of civic sense of responsibility and a real– a faith in democracy not in
a naïve way, but in that– what it takes to address these
issues and to be part of trying to move things forward. It’s a living legacy
because he kept growing. He just kept throughout
his life. And during this extraordinary
decade when public service and people really felt they
could change things, many people and dedicated themselves
to trying to do that, but that’s always available
and it’s really the only way.>>I think one of his famous
quotes every man can make a difference and each
man should try.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
That’s good. Every man can make a difference
and each man should try. Yeah. Should we take one more? Yeah? [ Inaudible ] At his death, were there any–
this is a question for Peter. I don’t know, but I think it’s
evident in what he was saying and doing and– like the
Bedford-Stuyvesant project, other things. You know, the question
is, what– any indication of what his
policies would have been going forward, what his plans were.>>Oh I could– Number one,
end the war in Vietnam.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
Yes, end the war.>>Absolutely number one, but
as far as these issues of praise and poverty together,
the thing– he was very three-dimensional
in terms of things that he pushed forth and so on. So– But the thing, it was certainly also
the top for him was jobs.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
Jobs, OK.>>And of course that very much
you were talking– asking– talking about Dr.
King that was– he had gone in that
direction as well. And specifically,
the whole question, I heard somebody say this
morning and where I was that that you can tell
person’s life expectancy by their zip code. And that he certainly when you
talked about Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was– again, there would
have been many other ideas but very much in the forefront
for him was the question of what are we going to do in this neighborhood
[inaudible] as well.>>Patricia A. Sullivan: Right.>>Where there’s so many
people who were in poverty who were all packed together. And I think that was
on the domestic side and the questions
have raised on poverty about which he was absolutely
have them conjoined in his mine. Particularly, King with the
focal point on the question of concentrated poverty.>>Patricia A. Sullivan:
Concentrate, thank you. Thank you. That’s great explanation. OK. Anything else? OK. Thank you. Thank you [applause].>>This has been a presentation
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