JFK and RFK in the Civil Rights Movement Era: Transcript

ANNOUNCER JAMIE RICHARDSON: The JFK35 podcast is made possible through generous support from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.

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PRESIDENT KENNEDY: If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

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HOST MATT PORTER: In 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared civil rights a moral issue and put the full weight of the presidency behind making sure states followed through on racial integration ordered by the courts. While President Kennedy didn't live long enough to see Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his brother Robert would pick up where JFK left off. Today, we'll talk with the story of Patricia Sullivan about her new book on RFK and his role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, next on JFK35.

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PRESIDENT KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

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MATT PORTER: Hello, I'm Matt Porter, welcome to JFK35. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the early 1960s, just as President John F. Kennedy was taking office. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division devoted their energies to bringing civil rights cases against states refusing to comply with court orders to integrate schools, government offices, and other public spaces.

Both Kennedys would be pressured by passionate Black activists lobbying them to act. Those same activists were also taking the fight to the streets of Southern cities like Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. Today I'm joined by historian Patricia Sullivan who wrote a new book taking a closer look at Robert F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights movement before he was assassinated on the campaign trail in 1968. The book is called, Justice Rising-- Robert F. Kennedy's America in Black and White. Patricia, thank you for joining me.

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Oh, a pleasure to be with you, Matt. Thank you.

MATT PORTER: So Patricia, reading this book, what made you decide to write this book on this topic at this time?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, I didn't set out to write a book initially on Robert Kennedy. I'm a historian of African-American history and Civil Rights, freedom movements of the 20th century. I just finished a major book on the NAACP which spans from the early 20th century up to the 1950s. And so I was curious about taking a fresh look at the '60s. We tend to focus on a Southern-based Civil Rights movement when throughout the country, the problems of racial inequality and racial discrimination really heightened through the 1950s as African Americans migrate-- continued to migrate north.

So I was reading around and thinking, and Robert Kennedy's name came up a few times in particular instances. And I was curious. So I read more and I realized that the Kennedy administration and Robert Kennedy in particular were much more deeply engaged with the country's challenges-- racial challenges and the Civil Rights struggles of this period than I had realized and I think been most historians have acknowledged. So that was sort of the opening.

And so in doing the book, I came to a different kind of understanding of the significance of the Kennedy administration, while at the same time looking at the '60s through a fresh context.

MATT PORTER: You say that President Kennedy and his brother had a unique understanding of what was going on. Do you think that happened all at once? Or with both of them having grown up in Boston, a community where there were few Black people around, before the presidency, before they were in the White House, I think they had limited travels in the South. Do you think they went into their jobs with some inexperience, though, and then they grew to understand the challenge with the jobs they took?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, I think their backgrounds, I think they were well-educated in the liberal arts. They were confident. They were sort of well-traveled. And then their trips to Southeast Asia in the early 1950s. So they were exposed to a lot. And the curious thing about President Kennedy's campaign, which I've sort of rethought in light of how he comes into the presidency with an understanding that's quite, I think, remarkable, is that he visited every state in the union in his lead-up to his presidential run in 1960.

So they were exposed-- he was exposed to what's happening throughout the nation, not just the South. And I just think that he saw things. And of course, the sit-ins occurred during the 1960s. So the Black vote, because of migration, nearly half of African-Americans lived in the North and the West by 1960, and the Black vote had become a pivotal force-- a pivotal factor for the Democratic Party and in national elections.

So I think there were political issues that drew attention, but again, I think the depth of his understanding-- and really, what clued me into that was an interview that Thurgood Marshall did with the Kennedy Library in 1964 about a meeting he had with John Kennedy in April of 1960 when he was a candidate.

And JFK initiated the meeting, asked Marshall to come to his Senate office. They had lunch, and Marshall said, I ended up staying. But what Thurgood Marshall concluded is that he understood everything about the challenges in the South, about school desegregation and voting rights, and that he had a commitment to Civil Rights and equality. Marshall really felt that as a result of that meeting in 1960. So that's an indication of he's at a point by the time he becomes president that he is aware.

And one other thing that I would mention that is also significant is when he decides to appoint his brother attorney general. There's a meeting in December of 1960 after the election, and Robert Kennedy is not particularly interested in that position in the administration, and John Kennedy wants him as his attorney general.

And at that meeting-- Seigenthaler was from Nashville. He's a Southerner, liberal on civil rights. He described the discussion and where John Kennedy said, you know civil rights is going to be a big issue, and I need someone in the Justice Department who I can trust, who's going to be strong, who's going to join me and taking the risks.

And according to Seigenthaler, John Kennedy said, we're going to have to change the climate in this country if it's so true. So from the beginning, even before the inauguration, this was on his mind. And selecting his brother was brilliant, because Robert Kennedy really fulfilled what John Kennedy felt he needed in an attorney general in the early '60s.

MATT PORTER: Yeah. Once they were in office, and RFK and President Kennedy were seeing the Freedom Rides and the violence that was going on in the Deep South against those demonstrators or at the First Baptist Church, I think I read-- and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think-- I thought I read that Robert Kennedy realized that this was going to be more than just a legal-- an issue of laws to fix. That these issues were ingrained in a way that went far deeper than just to try to make this a legal problem. That this became a moral problem.

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, I think the Freedom Rides definitely were a major turning point, a point that Kennedy saying we need to change the climate in this country. That's more than laws. I mean, that this-- the problem of race was deeply embedded, racial discrimination. I think there was an understanding of that.

What the Freedom Rides revealed is that the people who had supported his nomination, like Governor Patterson in Alabama, that there was a complete breakdown of law. That from the governor on down they were not going to protect the citizens who were really exercising their rights based on a Supreme Court ruling, and they weren't going to help the Kennedys out. They were going to-- and Robert Kennedy, after the terrible situation at the church where-- there were riots and there was a fear that they better have it inside to celebrate the Freedom Rides. Robert Kennedy said, those fellows are at war with this country.

So I think they understood-- this is spring of '61. He's in office for four months, that they were up against-- what they were up against in terms of Southern political officials and governors and the rest. They are at war with this country. And so what it would take-- and you're right, more than changing the law, but even getting to change the law dealing with Southern Democrats. But they understood, yes, and even more so that this problem was deeper than just enacting the law.

MATT PORTER: Let's talk about that speech on June 11, 1963, the national televised address John F. Kennedy would give basically throwing full support behind integration and the federal government's commitment to ending segregation, which he says to the nation, as a moral issue for their time. How do you describe how they led up to that? How they went from when they first were in office to getting to that point where they ultimately decided, President Kennedy needs to go on TV and make this national address? And who else was pushing them to do that?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, as you point out that speech on June 11 is really a remarkable document which I urge all of your listeners-- it really is quite striking. This is a combination of two and a half years. He's been in office for not even two and a half years, or barely. And what they realized when he came in-- and he had a very slim majority of Democrats in Congress-- and Southern Democrats had the power running committees, that passing a strong Civil Rights Act, defeating a filibuster was a steep climb.

And so initially executive orders, trying to enforce voting rights laws was the route they took looking for openings. And in 1962, the president introduced a voting-- a Civil Rights Act that would have abolished-- that would have [INAUDIBLE] and really enhanced voting rights filibustered. So it really-- to get something that was strong enough to do the work that needed to be done.

And of course, what happens is in the spring of 1963, Dr. King is in Birmingham orchestrating demonstrations to integrate the department stores, and massive confrontation with Bull Connor who turns fire hoses and dogs on young protesters. National attention in television and newspapers across the world.

And that Kennedy sees this as an opportunity, as well as a crisis-- I mean, because protests break out across-- and so the lid has come off. But they see this as an-- the country is finally seeing and realizing that, again, it's a crisis moment because people-- patience has run out among African Americans across the country, but hoping that this is a time that they can get enough support, bipartisan, to get through a strong Civil Rights bill.

And it's quite dramatic. And at that moment, you have a question about, where was the pressure? The Justice Department-- RFK's Justice Department was ready to move. Robert Kennedy was ready to move. The president was ready to move. None of his advisors thought it was a good idea. Vice President Johnson didn't think they could get a strong bill through and pass a filibuster.

So really, it was Kennedy brothers and these Justice Department lawyers working on this issue for two and a half years. And how they're going to do it is they need Republicans to be able to defeat a filibuster, which was guaranteed. And they put that together. I mean, the speech is June 11. And in June, the bill was introduced at the end of June. It's written at the end of May. I mean, it's very speeded up.

They're working with William McCullough, the Republican Party leader in Congress. And they really put together this support, but it's fraught. It's very challenging. And at the same time, I think this is really significant, President Kennedy begins bringing groups of citizens in. Lawyers in one group, religious leaders, women's groups, start urging and mobilizing people to help build public support and public pressure for a strong Civil Rights bill.

So it's really a remarkable summer of activity and energy that ultimately is successful in getting this bill together, and by the time President Kennedy leaves for Dallas, the bill has been voted out of the House Judiciary Committee and is on its way.

MATT PORTER: Fast forwarding to 1968, April 4, Martin Luther King is assassinated. We know RFK finds out about it during his campaign stop. He ends up giving a speech to a crowd in Indianapolis. Many of them finding out for the first time that Dr. King was assassinated. How would you describe that moment with a Civil Rights movement that was still pushing forward on other issues now? They had voting rights, but they were marching now for social rights, economic rights. What was that moment like for the crowd and RFK when they lost a leader like Dr. King?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Boy, this is-- it's just five years after what we were just talking about, but it's really-- a lot happens between 1963 and 1968. And one of the major shifts is that the problems and the discrimination and racial inequities in cities leads to massive protests and an urban rebellions that start in 1964 in Harlem and Rochester and Philadelphia, Watts in '65.

And Dr. King goes to Chicago during this period to begin to try to help address really deep problems of housing and police abuses. Robert Kennedy is also working on that and focused on that, and the issues of poverty. So by '68, the issues have broadened out and really deal with a lot of the structural and systemic issues that have a deep history in our country.

And so you point out that the loss of Dr. King at this moment was just really devastating in all of that. And as you point out, Robert Kennedy was running in the Indiana Primary-- he had declared his candidacy about a month earlier or several weeks earlier. And he was on his way to Indianapolis for Muncie when he hears that Dr. King has been shot.

And then when he lands in Indianapolis, he finds out that he had died from a gunshot wound. And there's a campaign that John Lewis has organized a rally in African-American community in Indianapolis, and it's-- so like getting there, it's nighttime. The police chief tells Robert Kennedy not to go, it's dangerous, and he insists on going.

It's hard for us to realize that before cell phones and all the rest, there were people in this park, crowded into this park who had not heard that Dr. King had been shot. So Robert Kennedy is the person to break the news to this crowd, which is mostly African American. And it's really a stunning moment. He doesn't have a written speech. He tells them what happened, and then he talks to them about what Dr. King represented. And really, about the tragedy of the moment and the challenges to the country.

And he really tries to evoke King's spirit to help people have the strength to go forward peacefully. And it's quite something. And that was one of the moments that really drew me to Robert Kennedy as a subject for this book.

MATT PORTER: You mentioned he has to talk to this crowd which is mostly African American, mostly a Black crowd. Tell them that their leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, has passed. To me it kind of embodies sort of what Robert F. Kennedy is able to do during his entire career, particularly his later post-1964. And he's successful as a white Irish Boston-born guy, and he's able to connect that night with a crowd who has vastly different life experiences than his own. What was special about Robert F. Kennedy that he was able to really reach across these very distinct divides?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, that's really what the whole book said. I mean, there are-- it's a terrific question. I mean, he's a certain kind of person. He has certain experiences growing up that I think makes him open to his moment in history. That he's moving into-- he's someone who was sensitive, curious, asked questions, and went. I mean, Marian Wright Edelman had a great way of describing Robert Kennedy. He went, he saw, he listened, he grew.

And he had tremendous empathy for our community. Be it in Appalachia, Mississippi Delta, or in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and really see that the lives, particularly of young people, that in a country like America with such wealth and abundance, to see people just-- desperate poverty, poor schooling. And he felt it. He felt it.

But he saw it. He talked to people. And he came to understand the deep inequities in our society. And also he's someone who believed in the capacity of Americans to face these challenges and work to change them. And again, it's a trait that-- you see in him as a younger person, but as he becomes more exposed and travels around the country and sees things and really has such a commitment to making this country better.

But he was really shocked and horrified by the depths of the poverty and the consequences of the deep segregation that had grown up in cities around the country as well as the poverty and segregation in the South. In the context of what is coming forward in this country through the Civil Rights movement and the demands that are being made, and really forcing the country to pay attention and look at the problems of racial inequality and of poverty as well.

MATT PORTER: In your book, you talk about a minority of Congress using the filibuster in the 1960s to prevent any further Civil Rights legislation. You could say they were even weaponizing the filibuster. Today, if I didn't know I was talking about the 1960s, you could almost easily say we're talking about what's going on in Congress today. How do you reflect on the situation with voting rights today versus then? And what kind of leadership can we learn from your book to apply it for the leaders who are combating the same issue today?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Wonderful question. One of the major figures in my book was Robert Moses, Bob Moses who went into Mississippi and was a central organizer of the voting rights push in that state, the most segregated and violent state in the country. And as you study this history, that applies to today.

Nothing's won, nothing's settled. You struggle to change things, to really secure justice and voting rights. And you have to stay vigilant. And it's the way it works. I mean, there-- and as we see, what's happened now, it's Republicans want to limit voting to sustain power and democracy sort of be damned. And it really-- I think what we learned from this earlier period is that it takes effort at all levels seeing the problem.

And I think it's been exposed and we understand. But then the organizing the pressure-- and long-term, long haul. There's no quick fix. I mean, it's really getting in there and fighting to hold on to these rights and to secure what we've lost. I mean, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act preclearance.

And there's tremendous energy in the country today at the local grassroots level and organizations. But really, we need to kind sustain that and amplify it. And listen for public leaders like Robert Kennedy and that, but they really were dependent on their efforts built on the movement, what the Civil Rights Movement had opened up.

And I think as an issue, voting rights is something that every American should be concerned about and access to voting rights. So really, getting the information out, educating citizens, and building the momentum to change it. Because it is shocking to realize the ground that's been lost in recent years on this issue. And you mentioned John Lewis. People literally gave their lives to secure voting rights. And they succeeded. They succeeded in getting that Voting Rights Act and voting enfranchisement.

So I think we're in a very-- we're in a very [INAUDIBLE] right now. And we've been there before, and what it's taken is really activism and commitment across the board. And really, helping to bring fellow citizens along, educating people and really making the issue something that is of concern to more and more Americans in a way that can get the kind of legislation that we need from Congress.

MATT PORTER: Do you think it's also different today, that back in the '60s, the African-American movement really depended on getting good white people like Robert F. Kennedy who had political power to line up on their side? Today, we have people in Congress who represent these populations. We have-- from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley here in Boston. What kind of difference do you think that makes that unlike last time, they have more political power themselves?

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Well, in the end, there are certain ways you get a bill passed in this country. And I think it's terrific, representation. We have terrific people in Congress. And as you point out, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and the change in the '60s, we have representation for African Americans and communities across the board and of these progressive efforts.

And at the same time, back in the '60s, if you look at the Congress that passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights-- they were the people who were concerned about this issue. But you had to build coalition. You had to work within the structures, but stretch them. It's a tough-- and you have to mobilize pressure from outside as well.

And I think-- so I think the people you mentioned in Congress, that's a huge plus. And they have visibility, people have access. But our media is so segmented now. That how do we get messages across to everyone? And not just talking to our base and the people who agree with us, but to really-- for citizens, this matters to them. I mean, that's the challenge today. It's great to have social media, it's great to be able to connect, but how do we connect across? To emphasize, to reach people who need to know that voting rights is fundamental to American democracy and American citizenship?

So having great leadership in place is important, but then finding in this moment how we do what was done in the 1960s through movement activists and people like Robert Kennedy, how do we build the momentum and bring-- inform people and energize people who may not be concerned or know? I mean, the historic literacy-- you may have to know history. You need to understand about the right to vote and the danger to American democracy by so boldly limiting and denying voting rights through various measures that have been used.

And of course, legislation before Congress have really helped remedy that. So the challenge is to get the support on elected officials and many people in Congress to work with these advocates of voting rights, working hard for it to really be able to get something that can, again, defeat the filibuster, change the filibuster. But again, you've got to-- wanting to change is one thing. Being able to do it is takes tremendous effort and work.

But I am encouraged that we have many people in political leadership and in activism and organizations that are committed to carrying this forward. So you have to stay the course. And it takes tremendous effort and collaboration, and at some point, certain compromises. But always keeping it moving forward.

MATT PORTER: I think that's a perfect place to end. Patricia, thank you so much for joining us and telling us a little bit about your new book. Appreciate it.

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: --so much. Great to talk with you.

MATT PORTER: Throughout their political careers, both Kennedy brothers met with key figures in the Civil Rights movement that included both those who worked on the front lines of the protest movement and others who worked in the courts to end legal segregation. One figure that they were introduced to was Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the NAACP who was known as Mr. Civil Rights. My colleague Jamie Richardson tells us how the Kennedy administration was convinced to nominate him to the federal bench from where he would eventually land a seat on the Supreme Court.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: In the interview with Patricia Sullivan, she mentioned a meeting John F. Kennedy had with Thurgood Marshall in the spring of 1960. Though he wouldn't become the first Black Supreme Court justice until 1967, Marshall was a prominent lawyer with the NAACP when JFK met with him. He had argued cases of racial discrimination in front of the Supreme Court, and perhaps most notably, was the architect behind the strategy that led to the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision which ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.

Once in the White House, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy looked to appoint African-American judges to positions on the federal bench. In his oral history for the JFK Library, Louis Martin, advisor to the Kennedys and called the Godfather of Black Politics, recalled the general consensus on Thurgood Marshall at that time.

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- Thurgood Marshall was not at that moment in the early days the number one guy in the thoughts of most people. One of the reasons is Thurgood was a leader of the Civil Rights movement at that time, and there was some doubt, because of the climate and opinion then, he could get enough support.

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JAMIE RICHARDSON: Nevertheless, Martin was able to convince RFK to offer Marshall a judgeship in a district court, but Marshall turned that down. But he later expressed interest in a position on a higher court, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On September 23, 1961, the Kennedy administration submitted Thurgood Marshall as their nominee for the vacant position on the Court of Appeals.

The White House received mail protesting the nomination, some worrying how a pro-integrationist would serve on a federal court. For eight months, the subcommittee charged with holding Marshall's confirmation hearings did nothing. The White House received mail from supporters of Marshall's appointment decrying the subcommittee's inaction, noting that it was led by Southern segregationists.

On August 22, 1962, nearly a year since the president's nomination, Kennedy was asked about the delay in Marshall's confirmation.

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- Mr. President, it's been almost a year since you nominated Thurgood Marshall for the federal bench. Senator Keating of New York charges that the subcommittee hearing his nomination is delaying it by ridiculous and un-lawyer-like questions. Do you share the senator's view of the holdup on his confirmation?

- I think it's been much too much delayed. I'm confident that-- in fact, I'm sure that the Senate will not adjourn, and I've been given those assurances, the Senate will not adjourn without action being taken by the United States Senate on the Thurgood Marshall appointment. When it does come for a vote-- and it will, my judgment that the Senate will confirm him overwhelmingly.

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JAMIE RICHARDSON: Finally, in September 1962, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as judge for the Court of Appeals where he served for four years. In 1967, he would face yet another confirmation battle when he was nominated for the Supreme Court.

MATT PORTER: Jamie, thank you for that look at Thurgood Marshall's path to becoming a federal judge.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: There are a lot more details on what Marshall himself called the long siege to be confirmed for the Court of Appeals. Go to the show page at JFKLibrary.org/JFK35 for links to a blog post written by archivist Stacey Chandler and the oral history interviews referenced here and in the interview with Patricia Sullivan.

MATT PORTER: Really interesting. I hope viewers can look into those resources on our page. And thank you for listening to this episode of JFK35, a podcast from the JFK Library Foundation. If you have questions or story ideas, email us JFK35Pod@JFKLFoundation.org, or tweet at us at JFK Library using the hashtag @JFK35.

If you liked what you heard today, please consider subscribing to our podcast or leaving us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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