Reference Entry

Kennedy, Robert F.

Samuel Brenner

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Kennedy, Robert F.

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lawyer, U.S. attorney general, U.S. senator, civil rights advocate, and presidential candidate. Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy, the energetic and enthusiastic younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and the older brother of longtime Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, was a civil servant who, although he had complicated and difficult relationships with several important African American leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., became increasingly liberal and devoted to the cause of civil rights after serving as attorney general in the 1960s.Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, was the seventh child of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy. Joseph Kennedy, who harbored enormous ambitions for his family, was a controversial figure accused of being—while serving from 1938 to 1940 as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom—an anti-Semite interested in appeasing Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. Having attended several private boarding schools, Robert Kennedy served in the U.S. Navy just after the end of World War II and graduated from Harvard University in 1948. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1951, Kennedy embarked on a career of government service, pursuing Communists first as an investigator for the Justice Department's criminal division and then as assistant counsel of Republican Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Kennedy left the committee in July 1953 but rejoined it in February 1954 as counsel for the Democratic minority; in January 1955 when the Democrats gained the majority he became chief counsel.In 1958 Kennedy won fame as counsel for the Senate Labor-Management Rackets Committee by spearheading an investigation of corruption in the Teamsters and other unions. The following year, Kennedy left his position in order to become his brother's campaign manager, helping orchestrate a tough campaign that brought John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960.Shortly after taking office, John Kennedy nominated Robert for attorney general. The nomination was controversial, both because Robert had never worked as a trial attorney and because he was the president's brother and former campaign manager. Confirmed nonetheless, Robert Kennedy served from January 1961 to September 1964, the last ten months under President Lyndon B. Johnson after John Kennedy's assassination. During his years as attorney general, Kennedy became increasingly sensitized to civil rights issues, including desegregation and African American disfranchisement. There is disagreement among historians about exactly when Kennedy became interested in these issues; the historian Arthur Schlesinger, for example, suggests that the Kennedys were always interested in civil rights, but it seems more likely that both Kennedys were affected by the shocking examples of intolerance, bigotry, and inequality that manifested themselves, especially in the South, during the early years of the 1960s.Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy (right) and Donald F. Benjamin (center) of the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council, 1966. New York World–Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of CongressPerhaps the pivotal moment for Robert Kennedy came in 1961 when the first thirteen freedom riders—black and white volunteers who rode buses into southern states to try to desegregate interstate bus transportation—were waylaid, beaten, and otherwise brutalized in Birmingham, Alabama, while Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor—and several FBI agents—looked on. By the time he was asked in an interview in May 1962 whether he believed the “big problem ahead for you” was crime or internal security, Kennedy had clearly been transformed: he replied, “civil rights.”That year, 1962, Kennedy was heavily involved with deploying federal marshals and the military to enforce the desegregation of the University of Mississippi; over the next few years he helped pursue what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and focused attention within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the problems of African American poverty and inequality generally. Kennedy's impact on civil rights came in less direct ways as well: in 1963, for example, he fielded an inquiry from Mildred Loving, an African American woman who had been punished under Virginia's law against interracial marriages. Kennedy directed Loving to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, and so indirectly helped bring about the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that struck down such laws as violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.Although there is no question that Kennedy ultimately became an ardent and important supporter of civil rights, it is possible that in the wake of his assassination in 1968 he was remembered as being more progressive on these issues than was in fact the case. Kennedy, for instance, always had a soft spot for his former boss, the infamous Senator McCarthy. Partly as a result of his anticommunist leanings, Kennedy had a complicated relationship with several civil rights leaders, most importantly Martin Luther King Jr.; in 1961 Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap the phones of King and other members of the civil rights movement, ostensibly to see if they had Communist connections. The wiretapping continued until 1967, expanded by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover beyond what Kennedy had authorized. Robert Kennedy, like his brother, also sought to prevent King from marching in Washington, D.C., when King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963.Kennedy, who had also never had an easy relationship with Lyndon Johnson—and who had in fact publicly criticized Johnson for not hiring more African Americans for his own staff—resigned as Johnson's attorney general in September 1964, and in November he was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. As a senator, Kennedy remained interested in questions of racial equality. In 1966, for example, he traveled to South Africa to support the antiapartheid movement. After Senator Eugene McCarthy's surprisingly strong showing against President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Kennedy entered the turbulent presidential race, running on a platform that stressed civil rights, equality, and social justice. On 4 June 1968, Kennedy won the important California primary. After addressing his triumphant supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles early in the morning on 5 June, Kennedy left through a service area, where he was shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan, a young Palestinian reportedly angry about Kennedy's support for Israel, as well as mentally ill. Kennedy died the next day and, after a public Mass in New York, was buried quietly at night in Arlington Cemetery.

Reference Entry.  1236 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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