Friday, March 16, 2018

Robert Kennedy Runs for President

It was fifty years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in the same Senate caucus room that launched his brother’s successful campaign in 1960.  The ensuing three months  were largely electric as many of us who remember it were inspired. 

Much has been written about Kennedy’s transformation after his brother’s death.  Chris Matthews, Larry Tye, and Evan Thomas are among those who talked about how the seemingly ruthless consigliere for JFK became a passionate advocate for the underdog and a hero in the African-American community.

Robert Kennedy’s transformation began before his brother’s death and was evolutionary.  But one of the most important events was his meeting with African-American leaders in May 1963.  I discuss it in my book, Dinner in Camelot, about the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House thirteen months earlier.

Kennedy met Baldwin at the dinner.  The brief encounter was enough for them to come together in the wake of the Birmingham civil rights campaign during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed.  They agreed to meet at Kennedy’s home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, to discuss race relations.  They did on May 23, but a late plane truncated the discussion.  Kennedy asked Baldwin to assemble some African-American leaders for a meeting in New York the next day.

More than a dozen people were assembled at the Kennedy apartment across from Central Park.  Among those present were Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, and Dr. Kenneth Clark, a prominent psychologist.  The meeting was brutal.  Kennedy clearly did not understand their concerns and was defensive when several people, especially young activist Jerome Smith, challenged him.  Dr. Clark later called the session “the most intense, traumatic meeting in which I’ve ever taken part…the most unrestrained interchange among adults, head-to-head, no holds barred…the most dramatic experience I have ever had.” 

Both sides left angry.  And yet, after a few days the arguments made about discrimination and civil rights had an impact on Kennedy.  He started to raise the issue of black equality in meetings.  Eighteen days after the New York encounter, President Kennedy delivered his noted Civil Rights Address, covering many of the concerns discussed at the meeting and outlining the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Robert Kennedy was the only Kennedy advisor to support this televised, fourteen-minute speech.

I’m drawing a connection between the encounter at the Nobel dinner to the Kennedy-Baldwin meeting to the Civil Rights Address to Robert Kennedy’s maturation on the issue of civil rights.  It is the subject of my next writing project, but it also is one of the amazing outcomes of the April 29, 1962 dinner at the White House; you can read about it in Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest, Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House.

Interestingly, we later learned that the My Lai Massacre also took place on this day fifty years ago, March 16, 1968.  Kennedy’s views on Vietnam evolved during the 1960s as well.

One final comment on the RFK presidential campaign:  I was eighteen years old and a fervent supporter.  Robert Kennedy’s death in June 1968, just as I was graduating from high school, was a traumatic event—only eclipsed by that earlier assassination in 1963.

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