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He went yammering around Indiana about the poor whites of Appalachia and the starving Indians who committed suicide on the reservations and the jobless Negroes in the distant great cities, and half the Hoosiers didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but he plodded ahead stubbornly, making them listen, maybe even making some of them care, by the sheer power of his own caring.
– John Bartlow Martin, friend and confidant to Robert F. Kennedy, quoted by Evan Thomas
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That was not always the case.
Shortly before his brother’s assassination, as Attorney General, he met with several civil rights activists in his New York apartment. Novelist James Baldwin was there. So was Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark, and representatives of civic groups. It was a contentious meeting. How did Kennedy intend to confront rampant, violent, racism? Kennedy began recounting initiatives that the administration was prepared to back. With each policy idea, the anger seemed to mount. Kennedy responded with impatient irritation. What did they want from him?
The consensus, as the meeting broke up, was that the young Attorney General, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, did not understand the extent of racism as it existed in 1963. The bitterness was palpable.
What changed for, and in, Robert Kennedy had to have come partly from the assassination in Dallas. People understood when the depths of grief sometimes surfaced.
But I think another part was the Kennedy determination to listen and learn. As senator, Robert Kennedy put together countless nighttime meetings in church basements and auditoriums. For the most part he did not speak. He took a place in the back, as ordinary people stood and talked of hope and obstacles, of dreams and despair. He took notes. He invited business and political leaders to join him. Robert McNamara was one of his frequent guests.
He learned about hunger, financial pressure, worship, and bills. He learned about hard working people falling behind. He learned about children bitten by vermin as they slept.
He later testified before Congress about the need in policy making for “maximum feasible participation” by those the government was trying to help.
He learned more than data and anecdotes. He also learned a certain cadence, with phrases and idioms. He learned the language of hardship. And he learned to make that language count beyond those who knew it and used it in their own lives.
In Vincennes, Indiana, Kennedy spoke with a business audience. He began to talk about children. “Do you know there are more rats than people in New York City?”
Business people thought they knew a lot about rats, and they laughed appreciatively. Kennedy looked sternly around the room, and spoke sharply.
The laughter stopped and there was silence. Then Kennedy spoke of vulnerable kids.
Five years after that disastrous 1963 meeting with civil rights leaders, a near replay occurred.
It was 1968. Martin Luther King had been murdered. This time it was a series of meetings with many of those who had been closest to Dr. King. Some meetings went beyond anger. Shouts of hopeless fury and despair were aimed at Kennedy. One attendee, Reverend James Bevel, had risked his life in lunch counter sit-ins and the bloody Freedom Rides. He wasn’t listening to any evasions. Historian Arthur Schlesinger recounted the event in his book on Robert Kennedy. He interviewed Andrew Young.
Bevel demanded to know whether Kennedy had a program for racial justice. Others joined the assault. “It was filled with profanity,” said Young, “and when preachers get to cuss, they cuss good. It’s kind of poetic…. He wasn’t upset. He just handled himself very well. He refused to say he had a program. He said, ‘Well, maybe we can get together and talk about that sometime.’ He said, ‘I do have one or two ideas. But really I didn’t come here to discuss politics. That would be in the worst taste.’ He said, ‘I just came to pay tribute to a man that I had a lot of respect for.'”
– Arthur M. Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times
Author and journalist Thurston Clarke, writing about the same meeting, says that Martin Luther King’s closest friend, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, had been weakened by a fast that lasted for several days after the King assassination. He struggled to his feet and embraced Kennedy.
It was a very different outcome than that first encounter five years before. It was a different Bobby Kennedy.
As I watched the series of political announcements in the last few days, I thought about Robert Kennedy and his seemingly endless, out of the limelight, back of the room, note taking, quiet listening tour. I thought about the contrast between the two meetings, five years apart, and the appeal he developed in those five years that seemed to traverse so many boundaries.
Hillary Clinton has had her share of awkward moments. Many of us flinched as she tried to achieve some empathy with those struggling toward little more than food and shelter for family and self. “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”
One flatfooted false start does not make an accurate portrait. And there is time.
She was able to win in 2000 the very same Senate seat that had been occupied by Robert F. Kennedy with her own listening tour through the hostile rural sections of upper New York State. I grew up in those areas, and the political divide is more to the right than most folks imagine. She was given the votes of conservative counties that, by history and ideology, should have gone to Republicans.
This time, if she learns more than the facts, more than individual stories, if she goes beyond simple good intention and develops the language of working class people, those who continue to struggle outside of the closed gates of financial security, she might well become a remarkable candidate. With a little luck, she could be a great President.
It would be a wonderful thing to see another Bobby Kennedy.