"We know that it is law which enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos. We know that law is the glue that holds civilization together. And we know that if one man's rights are denied, the rights of all others are endangered"— Robert F. Kennedy, 1961
About the Exhibit
The close working relationship of John and Robert Kennedy was one of the most unusual and successful in the history of American public life. In 1952, Robert directed his older brother’s upset victory over Henry Cabot Lodge in the Massachusetts senatorial contest. They challenged labor racketeering together when Robert Kennedy became chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field.
After the election, the President-elect appointed his 35-year old brother attorney general of the United States.
Robert Kennedy’s influence in the administration extended well beyond law enforcement. Though different in temperament and outlook, the President came to rely heavily on his brother’s judgment and effectiveness as political adviser, foreign affairs counselor, and most trusted confidant. After the Bay of Pigs
debacle, Robert Kennedy became an intimate adviser in intelligence matters and major international negotiations. His efforts during the Cuban missile crisis
in October 1962 were crucial in shaping a peaceful outcome.
Equality Before The Law
When Robert Kennedy became attorney general, the civil rights struggle was entering a new phase of activism. In February 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat in at the "whites only" section of a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter and launched a national wave of similar protests. Fifteen months later, in May 1961, a small group of Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. by Greyhound bus aiming to integrate interstate bus terminals throughout the South. The mob violence they encountered, and local police indifference to it, precipitated Justice Department involvement in protecting them and upholding their rights.
Relations between the Justice Department and the growing civil rights movement were both close and heated. Challenged by the courageous actions of movement activists, the attorney general and his staff helped to desegregate schools and public facilities, integrate the public universities of Alabama and Mississippi, shape new civil rights legislation, and support the registration of black voters throughout the South. Although many civil rights workers questioned the Justice Department’s depth of commitment, the two groups shared common goals and worked closely together.
Fighting Organized Crime"To meet the challenge of our times, so that we can later look back upon this era not as one of which we need be ashamed but as a turning point on the way to a better America, we must first defeat the enemy within."—Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Kennedy brought to the Justice Department
a reputation as a relentless fighter against crime and corruption. As Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate’s “Rackets” Committee he had direct experience of the influence of organized crime on America’s economy and government. Upon entering office he was determined to change the department’s previous neglect of these issues and assigned a high priority to an aggressive campaign against mobsters.
Through speeches and writing, such as his book The Enemy Within
, he alerted the country to the existence of a “private government of organized crime with an annual income of billions, resting on a base of human suffering and moral corrosion.” He established the first coordinated program involving all twenty-six federal law enforcement agencies to investigate organized crime, overcoming FBI indifference to the pursuit of racketeers. He significantly increased funds and manpower for the department’s Organized Crime Section, assigned a special team of prosecutors to handle the entire process of investigating and prosecuting cases against key racketeers, and successfully lobbied Congress for legislation expanding federal powers against organized crime.
In September 1963 he testified at a U.S. Senate hearing that organized crime convictions had increased from 14 in 1960 to 373 in 1963.
The centerpiece of the exhibit are documents and personal items of Robert Kennedys' placed atop a desk as they would have been on a September day in 1962. Among the items are the Attorney General's glasses
, pens and pencils, his original telephone, bookends, and drawings taped on the wall from his young children. Also displayed are RFK’s Treasury Department badge
, a toy Teamster's truck
used in a union scam and a bust of Winston Churchill by Leo Cherne.