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The Kennedy Brothers and Civil Rights

In The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality, Basic Books, 2006, Nick Bryant concludes that JFK was too cautious and hesitant on civil rights. (1) He forcefully disagrees with historians and biographers who have accepted what he calls Kennedy’s “rationalizations” about the power of the congressional southern bloc and provides substantial evidence that JFK’s caution grew out of his temperament and  conviction that these powerful southerners “should be charmed and, on occasion, gently cajoled, but never confronted directly.” (pp. 193–4) Bryant nonetheless applauds the moral commitment of Robert Kennedy, JFK’s attorney general—“a man of much firmer conviction and sterner resolve than his brother. He was far less plagued by ambivalence and prepared to make braver judgments.” (p. 428) However, RFK’s loyalty to the president was iron clad and he never publicly questioned his brother’s civil rights stance.

This theme runs consistently through Bryant’s thorough and exhaustive analysis of the civil rights struggles of 1961-1963. It is especially clear in his account of the September 1962 violence in Oxford, Mississippi sparked by the Kennedy administration’s attempt to enforce a court order to register James Meredith—a black U.S. Air Force veteran—at Ole Miss.

Bryant is correct in asserting that the Kennedy brothers were determined, especially with the mid-term congressional elections just over a month away, to prevent the Meredith crisis “from escalating into another Little Rock and were desperate to avoid the insertion of federal troops.” (p. 332) In the end, of course, JFK was forced to send troops and federal marshals to Oxford to suppress a riot in which two people died and many were injured.

In the aftermath, Bryant notes, JFK’s approval, especially by black voters in the North, skyrocketed. However, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. were privately disappointed “that the president had skirted the issue of civil rights in his handling of the crisis and emphasized the integrity of federal law in such a way as to avoid altogether the issue of race.” (p. 353)  However, a week after the Oxford riot, Robert Kennedy spoke in Milwaukee and praised Meredith: “there is so much that a single person can do with faith and courage…. James Meredith…lent his name to another chapter in the mightiest internal struggle of our time.” (p. 353)

Bryant concludes that although the president had delivered “a dry and legalistic speech” stressing constitutional issues, RFK “had been much more expansive, impassioned, and personalized. For him, upholding the integrity of the courts was secondary. Laws were less important than the ideals that James Meredith had sought to uphold.” (p. 353)  This episode, Bryant argues,

highlighted growing differences in their approaches to civil rights. … In the week before the riot, Robert Kennedy spoke to Meredith directly; at no point during or after the riot did the president contact him. In the week after the riot, Robert Kennedy publicly commended Meredith. Again, the president remained silent. RFK was too loyal to his brother to be critical of him, publicly or even privately.

Bryant, however, misses a central point about the political and personal relationship between the Kennedy brothers. He notes that at a crucial point in the Mississippi crisis “there is no record that Robert Kennedy had discussed the crisis in any great detail with the president.” (p. 338) Nonetheless, the extremely close relationship between JFK and RFK was unlike anything before or since in the history of the American presidency. For example, when I first listened to recorded telephone conversations between the Kennedy brothers, it was often difficult to even understand what they were talking about:

Typically, as soon as the phone was picked up, the brothers, without exchanging any personal greetings whatsoever, would burst into a staccato exchange of barely coherent sentence fragments and exclamations before abruptly concluding with ‘OK,’ ‘good,’ or ‘right’ and hanging up. Their intuitive capacity to communicate transcended the limits of conventional discourse. They always understood each other. (2)

A month after the Meredith episode, at the most crucial moment in the Cuban missile crisis, JFK chose RFK to negotiate a secret deal with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin—despite the attorney general’s strong opposition to the president’s determination to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. The president was entirely confident that RFK would suppress his personal doubts and faithfully carry out his brother’s decision.

RFK also willingly endorsed the more risky “moral” position on civil rights (which he clearly believed) at least in part in order to draw political heat away from the president. Robert Kennedy did not act independently and always consulted with his brother on key public statements and policies relating to civil rights or any other major issue. This “dual track” strategy allowed the Kennedy administration, in a shrewd political balancing act, to have it both ways on civil rights before the 1962 mid-term elections and what was expected to be JFK’s difficult 1964 reelection campaign (especially in the South).

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1 Sheldon M. Stern, “John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Race and Civil Rights,” review of Nick Bryant, The Bystander, Reviews in American History, March 2007, pp. 118-125.

2 Sheldon M. Stern, Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, Stanford, 2003, p. 44.