Water Man Spouts

Sunday, June 01, 2008


{1} Letter from a Region of My Mind

Yesterday, the democratic party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee met to decide how to resolve the issues involving the seating of Florida and Michigan’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention. For some, the solution is unsatisfactory, and there is concern that the Clinton campaign might attempt to contest the decision at the convention. In a discussion on the Democratic Underground, my friend Tatiana said something that reminded me of a story about Senator Robert Kennedy, and I’d like to take a few moments to share it with you.

I think the story will be of interest to democrats who support Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. It has to do with the art of listening. By no coincidence, the ability to listen is a strength that both Clinton and Obama have: in her 2000 campaign, Hillary Clinton went on a "listening tour" of New York; Barack Obama learned from students of Saul Alinsky that the ability to listen was the key to community organizing.

It may be that by focusing on our ability to really listen to those who support the "other" candidate, that both Clinton and Obama supporters can find common ground. Now let’s take a look at what we should not allow to become a forgotten chapter in the remarkable life of Robert F. Kennedy.

{2} Down by the Cross

In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy became focused on the issues involved in the civil rights movement. The activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others had resulted in Kennedy’s taking some actions that had created tensions between his brother’s administration, and the democrats and republicans who advocated segregation. Many in the civil rights movement felt that the Kennedys were not doing all that they could to insure that black Americans enjoyed the rights of full citizenship.

Kennedy was becoming concerned that the northern cities would create an even more explosive situation than what was taking place in the south. Leaders like King did not have as much support among the black residents of the northern ghettoes as they had in the south. Kennedy was particularly concerned with the growth in the Nation of Islam (NOI), or Black Muslims. The NOI had been a fringe group until the emergence of Minister Malcolm X. By 1963, Malcolm was becoming one of the leading black spokesmen in America, and he did not share Martin’s non-violent philosophy.

The New Yorker published an essay by author James Baldwin, titled "Letter From a Region of My Mind." (It can be found as "Down by the Cross" in Baldwin’s book "The Fire Next Time.") The essay spoke of the sense of humiliation, hopelessness, and rage that black Americans felt. It was, at the time, considered one of the most shocking things that white Americans had read. Baldwin’s essay included descriptions of his encounter with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, and more importantly, with Malcolm X.

Kennedy had met Baldwin at a White House reception for Nobel Prize laureates. After reading the article in the New Yorker, he invited the author to a private breakfast at Hickory Hills, where he asked Baldwin to arrange for a meeting of black leaders to be held at Joseph Kennedy’s penthouse at 24 Central Park South in New York City.

{3} The Fire Next Time

On the morning of May 24, 1963, Kennedy and Burke Marshall engaged in tough negotiations with the owners of several chain stores, regarding the need to desegregate their stores in the south. By the time of the meeting with Baldwin and what he described as his "rowdy friends," both Kennedy and Marshall felt that they had made some important progress that they could report.

Baldwin’s group included Lena Horne; Harry Belafonte; Lorraine Hansberry (author of "A Raisin in the Sun"); social psychology professor Kenneth Clark; Edwin Berry (of the Chicago Urban League); Clarence Jones (King’s attorney, who would serve as a go-between for Martin and Malcolm the following year); and Jerome Smith, a young CORE field organizer, who had been involved in the Freedom Rides, and who had been beaten and jailed numerous times.
Clark and Berry had come armed with statistics and proposals that could have resulted in the meeting taking a different course. But at the beginning, Kennedy made a comment on the need for black leaders to insure the movement stayed non-violent. He mentioned that he considered the NOI to be a threat to the civil rights movement.

Jerome Smith found that insulting. He said that he felt "nauseated" from being in the same room with Kennedy. RFK turned away from Smith, in hopes of cutting him off. Hansberry said, "You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there."

Smith spoke about the dangers that the civil rights movement faced as coming from the violence that white racists inflicted upon non-violent protesters, and the failure of the federal government to insure their safety. He said that he was in the city for medical treatment for the injuries he sustained in a series of brutal beatings he had taken. But he was not sure that he could continue to be non-violent in the future. "You have no idea what trouble is," he told Kennedy. "When I pull the trigger, kiss it goodbye."

Baldwin, who was less concerned with statistics than emotions, asked Smith if he would support the US in a war against Cuba. He was obviously aware of RFK’s positions on Cuba, and wanted to make a point with Kennedy. "Never! Never!," Smith replied.

This upset Kennedy, who believed that it was a patriotic duty to support the USA in times of war. Lena Horne told him, "If you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all, because you and your brother are representative of the best that white America has to offer. If you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the street, and chaos."

Kennedy spoke of his grandfather’s experiences as an immigrant. He said that in three generations, his brother had become President of the US. Kennedy noted that he believed a black man would be elected President within 40 years. Baldwin replied that his family had been here for far more than three generations.

After three hours, the tense meeting came to an end. No statistics or proposals had been discussed. The meeting had only involved emotions.

{4} Nobody Knows My Name

As he was leaving, Clarence Jones took Kennedy aside, and said that he appreciated the Attorney General’s support in Birmingham. Kennedy said, "You watched those people attack me over Birmingham for forty minutes, and you didn’t say a word. There is no point in your saying anything now."

Harry Belafonte then said, "Of course you have done more for civil rights than anyone else."
Kennedy replied, "Why do you say this to me? Why didn’t you say this to the others?"
Belafonte responded, "I couldn’t say this to the others. It would affect my position with these people. …If I sided with you on these matters, then I would become suspect."

The following day, Baldwin told a NY Times reporter that the Attorney General was "insensitive and unresponsive." Kennedy told a friend, "They didn’t know what the laws are – they don’t know what the facts are – they don’t know what we’ve been doing, or what we’re trying to do."

{5} More Notes of a Native Son

That meeting could have caused a greater division between the Kennedy administration and the civil rights movement. But the exact opposite happened. Robert Kennedy could relate to being an invisible person, because that was often his experience as a child.

"They need to know somebody listens," he told a friend. "All the abuse the blacks have taken through the centuries, whites are just going to have to let them get out some of those feelings."
Over the next five years, as Attorney General and as a US Senator, Robert Kennedy began his own listening tour among the people who were excluded from the American dream. When we listen to his speeches from his 1968 campaign for president, it is clear that he heard, and understood, what the voices that the democratic party needed to listen to.

This included his expanding his listening skills to hear those he viewed as "the enemy." In the daybook that President Kennedy had started, and RFK continued after Dallas, he wrote: "The final lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes."

This coming week, democrats will benefit by listening to the lessons of Senator Robert Kennedy.

{6} Sources

--Michael Beran; The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the end of American Aristocracy; 1998; pages 136-138

--Richard Mahoney; Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy; 1999; pages 249-250

--Evan Thomas; Robert Kennedy: His Life; 2000; pages 243-245

--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Robert Kennedy and His Times; 1978; pages 355-360


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