As we reflect upon the life and legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, his central role in the progress of civil rights in America comes immediately to mind. Kennedy was to become one of the heroes of the movement for his tireless and ultimately successful work through the Department of Justice to secure the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, employment and public facilities, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting. However Kennedy was not always as committed to the cause as he ultimately was to become. The turning point in his attitude toward the Civil Rights Movement came as a result of a seminal meeting with two of the Village’s most prominent voices on the African-American Civil Rights Movement: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. While the meeting famously did not end well, it served as the catalyst that changed Kennedy forever and the origins of a national reckoning was at hand.
Baldwin first met Kennedy at the storied White House dinner in April of 1962 which honored American winners of the Nobel Prize. Kennedy sought out Baldwin’s advice on how to improve race relations. Their meeting took some time to come to fruition, but on May 24th, 1963, Baldwin assembled a formidable group- fellow artists, academics, and civil rights leaders to meet with Kennedy to discuss the state of racial relations in the United States.
As the meeting got underway, Robert Kennedy began by explaining to the group how the Justice Department had been supporting the civil rights movement. It seemed to those present that the Attorney General’s objective was to obtain their gratitude for the measures taken rather than to engage in meaningful dialogue. They felt Kennedy expected them to be there to congratulate the efforts of the President and the Attorney General. Jerome Smith, a young black civil rights worker who had been beaten and jailed in Mississippi, was one of Baldwin’s assembled group. As Kennedy made his agenda clear, Smith suddenly began to weep “as if he’d just suffered some traumatic flashback” and said: “I’ve seen you guys [referring to the Justice Department] stand around and do nothing more than take notes while we’re being beaten.” The mood is reported to have quickly become tense, and the dialogue acrimonious.
As it became increasingly clear that Smith was unable to hold back his anger and frustration, Kennedy and Smith began to argue. Kennedy was particularly concerned when Smith declared that he would “never, never, never” join the military to fight against Cuba for the USA. Lorraine Hansberry is reported to have interrupted, saying, “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. …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.”
According to Baldwin, “He (Smith) didn’t sing or dance or act. Yet he became the focal point. That boy, after all, in some sense, represented to everybody in that room our hope. Our honor. Our dignity. But, above all, our hope.”
The three hour meeting was, for Kennedy, a revelation of the deep and seething rage of black America. It ended acrimoniously when Hansberry walked out of the room, followed by most of the others.
As painful and emotionally heated as that meeting was, it was the beginning of the awakening of Robert F. Kennedy. Less than one month later, President Kennedy, prompted by his brother, the only White House advisor to actively encourage the President to speak out on the issue, delivered his landmark Civil Rights Address, in which he publicly proposed legislation that would become The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, many Americans recall Kennedy as a racial healer and bridge-builder, but his arrival to that rarefied spot was the end of a long transformation that began with the fateful “Baldwin-Kennedy Meeting.”
Their homes are also some of over a hundred sites to appear on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo – explore those sites here.
To read more about Robert F. Kennedy’s relationship to the Village, click here.