Robert F. Kennedy: Teachings for Today

Robert F. Kennedy: Teachings for Today

RFK had an uncanny capacity to reach across racial lines. He learned by listening and empathizing.

April 13, 2018

This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

An emblem of Robert Kennedy’s capacity to reach across racial lines was the way he campaigned in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, when he ran for president in 1968. He made a point to appear together with Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first post-Reconstruction African American mayor of a large city, and Tony Zale, a white local hero who was the middleweight boxing champion of the world. That reach has often been noted over the years, with the added note that many of the city’s white residents who voted for RFK went on to vote for Governor George Wallace in the general election after Kennedy died.

I start there because we have never more needed to bring our people together.

Of course, Robert Kennedy’s brother was the fallen president, and many of the whites who voted for RFK were Catholic. But there is much more to it.

He listened to people, including people who disagreed with him, and definitely of all races. He went to rural Oregon where some of the audience had signs saying, “Nixon’s the One.” He said, “The one what?” They laughed along with the people supporting RFK. He went to Ole Miss soon after the desegregation he had caused to take place, and the students welcomed him warmly. He began his presidential campaign in Kansas and filled football stadiums. He won the Nebraska primary. He went anywhere that would have him. And he pulled no punches.

(AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

Robert F. Kennedy offers a handshake to a resident of the rural Mississippi Delta near Greenville, Mississippi, on April 12, 1967, during his tour of the area.

He went to places where no United States senator had ever been, even the senators of that state. He visited people in their homes. In Mississippi, he met a man named Andrew Jackson, who had lost his job as a sharecropper because of technology changes in the growing of cotton. Kennedy walked into the house, shook hands with Mr. Jackson, and said, “So you’re Andrew Jackson.” Mr. Jackson looked him in the eye and said, “So you’re Robert Kennedy.” The room exploded with laughter. He learned by listening and seeing with his own eyes. And then he told the rest of the nation what he had seen.

Campaigning for president, he told people everywhere, in big cities and small towns, that we had to end the war in Vietnam, to end the near starvation he had seen in rural black Mississippi, and more broadly to end the poverty that should not exist in America. He talked about things that were not their priority, but they believed in his sincerity and respected his courage. He talked about the distance of Washington from the lives of real people and about empowering them, about bringing a sense of agency into their own lives. Regardless of their views on other issues, they agreed on this.

We hear words somewhat like those from Paul Ryan and others now, but their version means dismantling the federal programs for the poor, removing protections for the environment and for consumers, and cutting taxes not only to make the rich richer but also to make the government unable to act for the good.

RFK’s thinking was totally different. Underneath his words there was a concept of countervailing power, in favor of federal funding and strong regulation for good purposes to be sure, but combined with a commitment to accountability to the people and control over their own lives.

He said these things in speeches throughout his time as a senator. He talked not only of the power of the wealthy, but also of the lack of government accountability in many ways and of corporations, unions, elite universities, and the institutions of faith—the overreaching of bigness and of a stifling hierarchy wherever it was found.

In short, RFK was not a liberal, at least not a traditional liberal, in that he rejected the top-down attitudes and designs of much of liberalism. If anything, he was more like a progressive of today, but he always insisted he could not be identified with a label.

Running for president, he talked in Indiana about “law and order,” which annoyed some of his staff, but he knew what he meant. He meant justice and civil liberties and the Constitution as standing for those principles. But he wasn’t above expressing his view as “law and order.” He did want to win. He did understand politics. And he had the credibility of the prosecutorial part of his experience. One can be a prosecutor and do justice, after all.

(Library of Congress)

Robert F. Kennedy, August 19, 1964.

People saw Kennedy as tough and deeply caring at the same time. The combination was real and it was part of the reason for the breadth of his following. People could see how much he loved children. I will never forget the child on the dirt floor by himself when we were in rural Mississippi to see directly the severe malnutrition that had been reported to the senators. The picture is in my mind’s album as if it is glued onto my glasses. The child seemed not to be able to stand up. My wife-to-be and I were in the house, but RFK did not know that. He kneeled down for perhaps ten minutes to seek a response from the baby. She has said repeatedly since then that this was the moment she knew he was the real thing.

On his first day as attorney general, he installed his high school friend David Hackett in an office that opened directly into RFK’s own cavernous office and told Hackett to work on juvenile delinquency. But for Kennedy, that meant opportunity for young people who were being left behind. Hackett put together a group of people made up of both government and outside experts, and their work became the planning that ended up as the War on Poverty. Kennedy made two contributions: one, a domestic Peace Corps which became VISTA, and two, a requirement that the governance of the new entities to be created in low-income communities would feature “maximum feasible participation.” The point was that, while there was federal funding, it would be spent largely through decisions made by local residents.

More pointedly, this meant that City Hall did not control how the federal funds would be spent. Mayors around the country, especially Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, hated it—so much so that it took only three years for the mayors to take “maximum feasible participation” out of the statute and transfer control to City Hall.

I went with Kennedy to Chicago one day in 1967 for hearings on the War on Poverty, and he told me to arrange a courtesy visit to the mayor. I went to Daley’s office and asked if I could see the mayor’s assistant to set up the visit. The next thing I knew I was being escorted into seeing the mayor himself. No, not me, I said, the senator. But there I was. “What brings you here?” Daley asked. I explained that we were looking into how the War on Poverty was going in Chicago. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s that community action thing, isn’t it? I never understood that. The people of Chicago elected me to be their mayor, and if they don’t like what I’m doing, they can throw me out of office.”

RFK’s idea of empowering the people, which he had expressed every day in his presidential campaign, had begun at least as early as 1961. And note as well that he was straddling two political frames on that day in Chicago, significant far beyond the incident itself. He was espousing the idea that the people should have greater control of their governance, and at the same time, he was staying on good terms with Mayor Daley and by extension the pols whose support he would need to get nominated and elected as president.

Bedford-Stuyvesant, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn that needed jobs, better housing, health care, public safety, and more, was another example of RFK’s pursuit of power for the people at the community level. Kennedy had given a speech in New York in January 1966 proposing a neighborhood redevelopment initiative to lift the neighborhood, and to do it with governance controlled by the residents themselves. Shortly after, he was meeting community leaders in Bed-Stuy, and they asked rather forcefully what he was going to do to help them with their problems. Kennedy proposed the plan he had laid out in his speech, and they agreed. A year of planning ensued, with RFK flying up to Brooklyn, sometimes more than once in a single week, to thrash out the details. Ultimately, one corporation was created to run the initiative and another created to pursue outside resources, including both private and government funding at all levels, and give advice to the project—but it would be controlled by the residents.

(AP Photo)

Robert F. Kennedy reaches to shake the hand of a Catholic nun as he is surrounded by elementary students during his inspection into the anti-poverty program in Mississippi on April 11, 1967.

Coupled with the inner-city revitalization speech was another speech the next day that called for desegregation so people in inner cities could move out to the suburbs if they wanted to. He had a multiple strategy in mind—the word “choice” was the crucial word. And “choice” means control for the people themselves.

When he talked about it as a candidate for president, he boiled it down to talking about people having far more control of their lives. But it wasn’t just talk. Kennedy had been thinking about it and actually doing it.

There is a sense in some of the books about RFK that he was not much interested in the day-to-day work of being a senator. He would go to South Africa to support the anti-apartheid efforts when that was still a radical cause, and to the Yukon to be the first to climb the 14,000-foot peak named for his brother. And even his legislative work would get headlines, for his going to see Cesar Chavez in California or exposing the severe malnutrition in Mississippi, and for his deepening differences with President Johnson, not for his day-in, day-out work in the Senate.

All true, but he was an excellent senator in the conventional sense as well. In his first weeks as a senator he succeeded in adding the Southern Tier counties in New York to the Appalachian economic development program that was in the process of enactment. He added an important amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require evaluation of what was done with the funds. He amended the Voting Rights Act to ensure that Puerto Ricans who had been educated on the island would not be required to take an English-language literacy test. And he obtained funding for Bedford-Stuyvesant and community development corporations like it.

Bills he introduced often entailed major changes that would only be enacted with the passage of time. He had a bill to use revenues from income taxes to pay for a third of the cost of Social Security. The authors of Social Security had said that by 1965, it would be necessary to use the income tax, or the payroll tax would have to be raised to high levels that would be a burden on lower-income workers. As another example, two bills—one for low-income urban neighborhoods and another for low-income rural areas—would have used tax subsidies to incentivize economic development in these high-poverty areas.

Especially important was a proposed amendment he offered to the 1967 reauthorization of the Economic Opportunity Act, the War on Poverty. With co-sponsors, RFK called for a major job-creation program for young people living in high-poverty neighborhoods and rural areas. President Johnson opposed it and it failed. Kennedy would have continued to push for it in subsequent years, but his death cut off the possibility. He had come to the Senate believing more effective education was the key to getting out of poverty, but his further experience told him that job creation was essential, too. It would have been a crucial building block for getting young people out of poverty.

He regularly partnered with his Republican senior senator, Jacob Javits, on anything that would specifically focus on New York, and he always found a Republican to be the lead co-sponsor in other major bills he introduced. (Need I say that the Republicans of that time were quite different from the Republicans of our day.)

Kennedy continually added issues to his agenda as he encountered them, and my assignments as his legislative aide grew as well. Having gone to California for hearings to publicize Cesar Chavez and the organizing efforts of the farmworkers’ union, RFK became the de facto go-between in Washington. Having gotten first-page coverage in The New York Times of a speech on the faults in the welfare system, especially from the perspective of recipients, he told me to figure out how he could improve a bill then pending on the subject, even though he was not on the Finance Committee. Having gone to Mississippi and seen the severely malnourished children there, hunger was at the top of his list until he died. Having keynoted a global convening about cigarettes and health to wide approval, he took on efforts to keep cigarettes from children, including a push to get the National Football League to stop accepting ads from the tobacco companies. The list goes on.

In some ways, RFK’s temperament was not that of the culture of the Senate. He was definitely not the back-slapping type, and his wit could be cutting. At a hearing about auto safety, Ralph Nader was a witness and Senator Carl Curtis kept interrupting Nader’s delivery of his testimony. When Kennedy told Curtis to let the witness finish his remarks, Curtis replied, “I have no objection to hearing his testimony, but when he loses me with—,” Kennedy finished the sentence: “With big words?”

The welfare bill mentioned above ended up in a conference bill between the two houses that was unacceptable to Kennedy and others, so they decided to filibuster to block it. On the first morning of the filibuster, the senator guarding the floor did not pay attention to what three conservative senators were doing at the front of the chamber. One presided and the others stood nearby. One whispered, “I move the passage of the bill.” The second said, “I second the motion.” And the senator presiding said, “The ayes have it.” Kennedy was furious. He came to the floor and went up in smoke. I don’t remember his exact words, but he took his colleagues apart—shall we say, not collegially. In those days, the words were taken down in shorthand, written manually. Senators or staff could correct errors later in the day. Kennedy sent me to “correct” what he had said. His thought is still clearly there, but I removed the inappropriate language.

(John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy on June 22, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

Two sets of hearings took up an extensive amount of Kennedy’s time, one regarding the Vietnam War and the other regarding issues of race and poverty in America’s large cities.

RFK was not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but the Fulbright hearings in 1966 were extremely important, and Kennedy sat in the back of the room day after day. He had already made a significant speech in February of that year, arguing that it was now crucial to begin negotiations for peace, and saying that for such talks to succeed, both sides would have to be prepared to compromise. President Johnson attacked him viciously, and to make it especially unpleasant, LBJ made the ex-JFK people still in the government join in the attacking. Kennedy went to the hearings with regularity to help himself figure out his next moves. This was important substantively, but my point here is that this was a senator doing the work of a senator.

Kennedy was a member of the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization. In the wake of the civil unrest in South Los Angeles in 1965, he and the chair, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, decided to have hearings on race issues in the country’s large cities, which had recently seen so much violence. The hearings, titled the Federal Role in Urban Affairs, went on for months in 1966 and 1967, with high-level witnesses from all relevant walks of life. All of the national civil rights leaders were among them, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as public officials, corporation heads, foundation leaders, and more. The transcript takes up three very thick books.

Kennedy spent hours listening to the witnesses, asking many questions to amplify the prepared statements. The administration witnesses found their chairs to be hot seats, as did Mayor Sam Yorty, the mayor of Los Angeles, who had been mayor during the Watts rebellions. Kennedy made good use of his prosecutorial skills, skewering the mayor up and down.

Then there was Dr. Robert Coles, the child psychiatrist from Harvard. I remember the scene like it was yesterday—late in the afternoon, with sunshine coming in through the slats of the blinds, a beautiful color. Kennedy and Coles began a conversation about what happens to young black boys coming to age in the segregated inner city where they live. They took turns talking about how the joy of childhood too often was gradually replaced with a consciousness of the barriers they would encounter and the anger that would grow with it. The room was absolutely quiet. It was spellbinding. This was Kennedy as a senator—extraordinary.

Time passed. RFK had to decide whether to run for president. He vacillated. In my view, this is the duality that was evident in the War on Poverty hearings and in the visit to Mayor Daley. Kennedy’s father taught him that you don’t get involved in something unless you know you are going to win. The new politics of Tom Hayden and other younger friends said you do it for the cause, win or lose. RFK had a foot in each set of politics. I’ve always thought that this was what was tearing at him. Once he decided to run, it was clear that he was liberated. The content of his campaign showed that he was moving more and more to the new politics, but it was on his terms—the terms that he had developed over the years he had been in the Senate, and before that.

There is a question among some as to when Kennedy decided to run for president. We still hear people who say that he did not decide to run until after the New Hampshire primary, when Senator Eugene McCarthy almost defeated President Johnson—that he only jumped in when he saw that the water was warm. This is in significant part because some writers and documentary filmmakers have mistakenly said that RFK made the decision after the primary.

This is false. I was with RFK on March 10, 1968, two days before the primary, and he told me and his two close friends and associates, John Seigenthaler and Ed Guthman, that he was going to run. Cesar Chavez was on a hunger strike, and early in March his aide phoned and told me that Chavez would not end the hunger strike unless RFK would come and break bread with him. Kennedy was worried about Chavez’s health and he immediately told me he would come. He said he was already going to be in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 9 for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, so it would be that much easier to go because we would already be halfway there.

I noted that Seigenthaler had joined us in Des Moines from Nashville, but I didn’t think much about it. Then Guthman joined us in Los Angeles, where we would be going to change planes to go to Delano. On the four-seat private plane, RFK told us he had decided to run. I was ecstatic.

People ask me whether there is a Robert Kennedy of today or one who might emerge, with that special set of leadership, values, and the ability to bridge the chasms of today. I don’t know, but I do know this: We can’t wait for a savior. We have to get to work. It is up to us.

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