Back in May, 1963, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy invited a select group of black entertainers to meet with him at his father’s apartment in New York City.
Singer-actor Harry Belafonte was there. So was Lorraine Hansberry, whose play about black upward mobility, A Raisin in the Sun, had received rapturous reviews when it debuted two years earlier. Writer James Baldwin came, as did singer Lena Horne. Each of the invitees was active in civil rights, and Bobby Kennedy was interested in hearing more about the movement.
What he got instead was an earful, says Larry Tye, author of Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.
“They came there — they thought — to tell Bobby what the situation was in American civil rights and what he ought to be doing,” Tye says. “Bobby saw the meeting instead as his explaining all the things he and his brother were trying to do. He thought he should get a pat on the back; people thought he should get a kick in the butt.”
The administration was moving way too slowly, the group told Kennedy. Seething, Kennedy wrapped up the meeting and fumed for the next couple of days. Then, says Larry Tye, Robert Kennedy did what he often did:
“He started out with a narrow view of the world, and he ended up, not long after, being able to put himself in the shoes of the people he was facing off against. And in the end, deciding not only that they were right, but that he was going to do something about that.”
For a rich kid from Boston who’d had virtually no exposure to the black struggle, that was pretty surprising. In his book, The Promise and the Dream, David Margolick says the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. was … cautious.
“You have to understand that for much of white America, King was a controversial, even divisive, figure. Especially in the South, and the Kennedys needed those votes.”
They also needed black votes, and King had the potential for turning out the black vote — especially in the South — or sitting on his hands. It was an interesting dilemma, says Margolick. “The Kennedys were politicians — they had to be careful with Martin Luther King. They had to cultivate him … but they had to keep their distance from him.”
Robert Kennedy wanted to know more about black America than briefings from the civil rights leadership could provide. So while he was attorney general and later, as a U.S. senator from New York, he made several trips to various parts of the country, urban and rural, to better understand race and poverty. Sometimes he took one of his older children with him.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. still remembers one visit to Harlem: “At one point (we visited) a Puerto Rican mother in an apartment who kept cats in the apartment to keep rats from getting into the crib where they would bite her baby.”
The accompanying publicity moved the recalcitrant landlord to take care of the building’s vermin problem.
In his book American Values, Robert Kennedy Jr. noted his father also visited the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, because he wanted Americans to know hunger was not just something they saw in Life magazine photo essays on developing nations.
“There were people — mainly in the Senate and the Congress — who said ‘starvation does not exist in America.’ ” The senator’s eyewitness accounts showed that was wishful thinking. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries on earth, the United States had a hunger problem it didn’t want to see.
During the late ’60s, California farmworkers, most of them Mexican-American, were struggling to bring attention to their abysmal working conditions. Life-long labor activist Dolores Huerta says Robert Kennedy made several visits to the striking farm workers she and Cesar Chavez were organizing in the fields of Delano, Calif.
“When the Senator came to Delano, it definitely put us on the national scene,” Huerta remembers. He came more than once. And he established a lasting friendship with Cesar Chavez, and was with Chavez when he ended a grueling 25-day water-only hunger strike.
“Chavez understood that this was one of the only white politicians — maybe the only one — who truly and instantaneously got what was going on with the farm workers,” says biographer Larry Tye.
Dolores Huerta believes that empathy and advocacy created an affection for the Kennedys — especially Robert — that has lasted for generations.
“When you go into many Latinos’ family homes, you’ll often see a tapestry on the wall, and it’s Dr. King, John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.” The same triumvirate shows up in black homes and churches.
Which perhaps explains why, this week, there will be celebrations of Bobby Kennedy’s life and work in several black and brown communities across the country. He is gone, yes — but nowhere near forgotten.