America in the 1960s: 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 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 a 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,” 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 Sullivan recounts, Robert Kennedy made civil rights his top priority in his brief years as U.S. attorney general and as a 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 Sullivan describes, Kennedy explored conditions of the most desperate American citizens as attorney general 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 Sullivan’s extensive archival research as well as her interviews with Kennedy’s contemporaries, including colleagues at Department of Justice (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overlooked material, such as articles from the Black press and documents from Black writers and commentators — even unpublished notes and files of mainstream journalists.
Sullivan is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and has co-directed a 20-year-long series of summer institutes at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute on “Teaching the History of the Civil Rights Movement.” She graciously responded by telephone and in writing to questions about her work as a historian and her new book on Kennedy and the civil rights movement.
Real Change: 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.
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.
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?
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.
You’re an expert on U.S. civil rights history, but did you come across one or two surprises you’d like to share with readers?
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.
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 Department of Justice (DOJ). How do you see his beginnings at DOJ and how his staff related to him?
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.
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.
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 35 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.”
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.
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 think 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.”
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney and writer/features editor for the History News Network. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]
Read more of the Dec. 29, 2021-Jan. 4, 2022 issue.