RFK at civil rights rally, June 1963
The encounter was called “intense,” “traumatic,” “excruciating,” three hours of “violent, emotional verbal assaults.” On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with a group of black writers and artists brought together by James Baldwin. Pulitzer prizewinning author Arthur Schlesinger, special assistant to President John Kennedy, gave the fullest account of the event, which came only weeks after the Birmingham, Alabama, agreement for desegregation triggered bombings and riots. Did this difficult confrontation make a difference? Perhaps.
Birmingham convinced Kennedy that the next great battlefield for racial justice lay in the cities. James Baldwin was born in Harlem. His extraordinary New Yorker piece of November 1962, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” had exposed in searing word the humiliation, despair and rage of Negro Americans. Baldwin and Kennedy had met the year before at the White House dinner for Nobel Prize laureates. They had agreed then that they wanted to talk some more. Now Kennedy invited Baldwin to breakfast at Hickory Hill.
Baldwin was a brilliant, passionate, sensitive, dramatic man imbued with a conviction of utter hopelessness about the black fate in white society. “The Negro’s experience of the white world,” he had written in the New Yorker, “cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards in which the white world claims to live.” His belief, one felt, was that all white by definition hated all blacks and that white liberals were worst of all because they pretended to deny their innermost feelings. Nonetheless he caught an early plane to Washington. “We had a very nice meeting,” Kennedy said later. “I was really quite impressed by him,” said Baldwin. “… He seemed honest and earnest and truthful.” Burke Marshall, who was present, said, “He and Bob Kennedy had a rather good conversation about the cities.” Baldwin’s plane had been late, however, and Kennedy had to leave for another engagement. He therefore proposed that Baldwin assemble a group with thoughts about the northern ghetto.
“This boy just put it like it was.”
This led to the meeting in the Kennedy family apartment at 24 Central Park South in New York. Baldwin, acting on short notice, made an effort to enlist experts on the northern city, like Kenneth B. Clark, the social psychologist, Edwin C. Berry of the Chicago Urban League and Clarence B. Jones, an attorney for Martin Luther King. But what Baldwin called “this sociology and economics jazz” was not his métier. He also invited the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte – artists concerned, like Baldwin himself, less with solutions than with the anguish of the problem. Then he brought along Jerome Smith, a young civil rights worker, who began as a Gandhian pacifist, became a Freedom Rider and a CORE field worker and, according to the historians of CORE, “had probably spent more months in jail and been beaten more often than any other CORE member.” He was now in New York for medical treatment.*
Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall had spent an unpleasant morning urging owners of chain stores to desegregate their lunch counters in the south. The white executives seemed to feel, Kennedy recalled, that “the Devil Incarnate had arrived in New York, and they were asked to meet with him.” They turned out not to be the only people in New York that day who regarded the Attorney General as the devil incarnate.
Listen to him, please.
Clark and Berry arrived armed with statistics and proposals. They never had a chance. Jerome Smith, as Baldwin put it later, “set the tone of the meeting because he stammers when he’s upset and he stammered when he talked to Bobby and said that he was nauseated by the necessity of being in that room. I knew what he meant. It was not personal at all. … Bobby took it personally.” This was perhaps understandable. To say, as the Attorney General heard it, that being in the same room with Robert Kennedy made him feel like throwing up seemed a rough way to begin. “Bobby took it personally,” Baldwin continued, “and turned away from him. That was a mistake because he turned toward us. We were the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the black community. Lorraine Hansberry said, ‘You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there.’
Belafonte – one of “the fortunate Negroes”
Smith talked on with vehement emotion. He told what he had been through in the south. He said he was not sure how much longer he could stay nonviolent. He said, “When I pull the trigger, kiss it good-bye.” Baldwin asked him whether he would fight for his country. He said, “Never! Never! Never!” This shocked Kennedy, for whom patriotism was an absolute. “We were shocked that he was shocked,” said Kenneth Clark. “…Bobby got redder and redder and redder, and in a sense accused Jerome of treason, you know, or something of that sort. Well, that made everybody move in to protect Jerome and confirm his feelings. And it became really an attack!”
“No alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.”
“This boy,” Lena Horne said afterward, “just put it like it was. He communicated the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro. The primeval memory of everyone in that room went to work after that. … He took us back to the common dirt of our existence and rubbed our noses in it. … You could not encompass his anger, his fury, in a set of statistics, nor could Mr. Belafonte and Dr. Clark and Miss Horne, the fortunate Negroes, keep up the pretense of being the mature, responsible spokesmen for the race.” Lorraine Hansberry said to Kennedy, “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a white America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.” The whites, she said, were castrating the Negroes. She talked wildly about giving guns to Negroes in the street so they could start killing white people.