Tag Archives: Robert F. Kennedy

The March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: an account of the 72-minute post-march meeting of 8 civil rights leaders with President Kennedy at the White House.

Sensing a national breakthrough for civil rights, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined civil rights leaders to plan a March on Washington for Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The great march filled the VIP section at the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall to past the Washington Monument, a distance of almost one mile. The March on Washington is remembered for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the massive crowd’s hopeful jubilation. The meeting with President Kennedy was more than a polite courtesy call to the White House–it helped coordinate political strategy for the movement that would have concrete ramifications for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following Kennedy’s death.

By John P. Walsh

President John F. Kennedy watched the march—and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech—from the White House on television. Both Kennedy and King were young men—King was 34 years old, Kennedy was 46 years old. Though mature beyond their years, each American proffered green oak in some ways—Kennedy was especially more personally sensitive than his “cool” public persona belied him to be. King, too, was mostly uncomfortable that day with the particular attention, from the media and others, that he was receiving for his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial. As the civil rights leaders filed into the Cabinet Room at the White House the first thing Kennedy said when he took King’s hand was “I have a dream…” reiterating the line that immediately impressed the president when he heard it a short time earlier live on TV. King deflected the president’s compliment and immediately asked him what he thought of United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther’s excellent speech which included criticizing Kennedy for defending freedom around the world but not always at home. Kennedy said: “Oh, I’ve heard [Walter] plenty of times.”

Civil Rights leaders in this group photograph at the Lincoln Memorial followed-up the March on Washington with a visit to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Seated left to right: National Urban League executive director Whitney Young (1921-1971); chairman of the Demonstration Committee Cleveland Robinson (1914-1995); labor union leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979); Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins (1901-1981).

Standing left to right: director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Matthew Ahmann (1931-2001); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1998); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader John Lewis (1940-2020); Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985); Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader Floyd McKissick (1922-1991); labor union leader Walter Reuther (1907-1970).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Following the successful march for jobs and freedom, civil rights leaders went to the White House to visit with President Kennedy and pushed measures to strengthen the Civil Rights bill.

King and Kennedy hardly talked more during the visit, though when they did it led to an outcome for action. Rather, Kennedy and Roy Wilkins talked at length about strengthening the civil rights bill following the success of that day’s completely peaceful march. King moved down the line away from the president and near to then-23-year-old John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

One section to the bill these activists wanted the president to add was a ban on employment exclusion based on race. Around that White House photo op in August 1963, among other things, they cited to the president the coming of increasing automation in the job market that would depress the availability of jobs. In that macro socio-economic light, they also discussed the plight of the inner city. They told Kennedy that Black teenagers were dropping out of school in epidemic numbers. The president was told by A. Philip Randolph that this entire generation of young blacks “had no faith” in whites, black leadership, government or God. American society meant nothing to them but despair.

During the visit, Kennedy was also lobbied to re-insert into the act a section that was stripped in 1957 giving authority to the Attorney General to investigate and initiate lawsuits on behalf of blatant civil rights infringements.

President Kennedy responded that with Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General, he had looked into the joblessness and school drop-out rate among Blacks in New York City and Chicago. On August 28, 1963, Kennedy encouraged the civil rights leaders to have the Black community do more. “It seems to me, ” the president said, “with all the influence that all you gentleman have in the Negro community that we could emphasize…educating [your]children, on making them study, making them stay in school and all the rest.”

In regard to the proposed add-ons to the civil rights bill, the existing legislation was already on the brink of defeat in a Democrat-controlled Senate and too close to call in a Democrat-controlled House. Wilkins countered that the Speaker of the House assured him that a stronger civil rights bill could pass the House and work to pressure the Senate to act. If the president would lead a crusade to win approval from the voters for these civil rights measures he could go over the heads of the Congress who obstructed passage of the bill.

Kennedy replied frankly to the leaders that civil rights will and must be a bipartisan effort. For a Democrat president to lead a crusade would allow the Republicans to support civil rights but in the South blame the Democrats exclusively for it. Kennedy assured the civil rights leaders that “treacherous” political games were presently being played in the legislature by Republicans and Democrats on the bill. Kennedy was countered by Walter Reuther. “Look, you can’t escape this problem,“ the white labor leader said, “and there are two ways of resolving it—either by reason or riots. But now the civil war is not gonna be fought at Gettysburg, it’s gonna be fought in your backyard, in your plant, where your kids are growing up.” Reuther told JFK he didn’t much like the young president’s “seminar” style of governing where “you call a big meeting…and nothing happens.” Reuther, as he told JFK, preferred Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach where you “jawbone” it until you “get difficult things done.”

King stayed silent for most of the back and forth debate. When King finally spoke he asked JFK that if the sitting president led a crusade then perhaps his predecessor, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, might get involved, and thus provide the bipartisan push. Kennedy snapped at King: “No, it won’t.” In reply, King made a knowing joke: “Doesn’t [President Eisenhower] happen to be in the other denomination?” Ike’s personal pastor, Rev. Eugene Blake, was in the Cabinet Room because Blake was the march’s only white speaker. One reason was that Rev. Blake, a powerful force and no pushover, had been arrested in a civil rights demonstration in Baltimore and had gone to jail. Just hours earlier, Rev. Blake orated: “We come late, late we come, in the reconciling and repentant spirit.” The Protestant clergyman embraced the march’s agenda of civil and economic rights for African Americans as well as an end to racism though he rejected words like “revolution” and “the masses” used by some civil rights activists as alien dogma.

At that day’s White House visit, Blake intimated to Kennedy that clearly Ike could be approached about civil rights. The president quickly pivoted and urged Ike’s pastor to visit the former president at his home in Gettysburg—“and include a Catholic and maybe a businessman or two”—to discover any political role Ike might be willing to take on for the civil rights bill. Then pointing to Reuther, Kennedy advised, “And leave Walter in the background.” Amid chuckles, Kennedy then left the room of civil rights leaders and assured them he would keep in touch in the months ahead.

SOURCES:

TAYLOR BRANCH, PARTING THE WATERS AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS 1954-1963. NEW YORK: SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1988.

DAVID GARROW, BEARING THE CROSS: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., AND THE SOUTHERN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE, WILLIAM MORROW AND COMPANY, 1986.

On August 28, 1963 about 250,000 peaceful protesters descended on Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history.

PHOTO CREDITS:

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. Public Domain/U.S. Government Photo.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Leaders of the march posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial.) by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Aerial view of Washington Monument showing marchers.) U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Leaders of the march leading marchers down the street. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Robert F. Kennedy’s Politics of Inclusion: Fifty Years Later.

RFK.

By John P. Walsh

It was fifty years ago today (June 8, 1968) that Senator Robert F. Kennedy had his funeral in Manhattan and a train procession to Washington D.C., for his burial after being shot on June 5, 1968 after winning the California Democratic primary for president of the United States. His assassination, funeral, and the long train ride to Arlington National Cemetery are seared into the national memory as well as my own who heard and watched on radio and television all these historic events unfold as a child. It is a memorable series of life-changing happenings for the nation, similar to when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his long funeral train procession from Washington, D.C. to Illinois took place in 1865. Before Lincoln’s funeral train went on to its final destination of Springfield, Illinois, the president’s body lay in state in Chicago. There, as it experienced in its other stops across several states, throngs greeted the Civil War president and, as History would have it, my great-grandfather who was in the Union army at that time served as one of Lincoln’s honor guards.

RFK Mississippi Delta April 1967

On June 8, 1968, brides and bridesmaids tossed their wedding bouquets at RFK’s funeral train when it passed in order to make their final good-byes. Though weddings and funerals are very different, they have similarities for being one of humanity’s great milestones, a significant rite of passage, where what was or has been, has died and what lies ahead is mysterious. It is recorded that one of RFK’s favorite songs was Where have all the flowers gone?, the modern folk song written by Pete Seeger which became a big hit, a number one musical sensation, in 1962, when RFK was Attorney General of the United States. The song is its own meditation on life’s transience – with its carriage of universal mortality – and whose lyrics, which Bobby Kennedy’s intuition understood perhaps more than he knew – grew more and more prophetic as the 1960’s moved forward.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young girls gone?
Taken husbands every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago…

In the JFK Library in Boston, there’s a multi-page document which is RFK’s campaign schedule for president from June 7 to June 17, 1968. Typed and single-spaced for over 11 pages, it became immediately moribund as the candidate who in just the last 10 weeks had won four out of five state primaries he entered – both in the Midwest (Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota) and the West (California) – had his unexpected and premature rendezvous with death.

kennedy campiagn itinerary
Ted Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy at Bobby Kennedy's funeral

On June 7, 1968, Senator Kennedy of New York was not to be lying in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan but on a 6 a.m. flight from L.A. to St. Louis for a luncheon with convention delegates. He then was to fly to New York State for a flurry of campaign appearances starting at Niagara Falls which would literally take him working into the early hours of the next day. On June 8, 1968, RFK was not to be funeralized with a train procession to follow for burial at Arlington, but making campaign appearances all over New York State from dawn to dusk. On June 9 he was not to lay silent on a hill below Custis House, not far from his brother, the slain 35th President of the United States, but…

RFK funeral train Paul Fusco
RFK funeral train photograph Paul Fusco

Perhaps RFK’s legacy for Democrats in 2018 and beyond is not that, as many insist, the New Deal Democratic coalition died along those rails on June 8, 1968 – fifty years ago today – but that it continues inherently with every progress and advancement made in society and, importantly, from and for all sides of American life. RFK’s brand of American politics for the Democratic Party is one that looks to include more of a wide array of political viewpoints than one would easily imagine possible or manageable. On June 8, 1968, Cecil Smith, of Charleston, South Carolina, was quoted in The Washington Evening Star as calling Kennedy “a wonderful man — a man of everybody.” Kennedy would never stop trying to govern from a grassroots political perspective which is creative and critical of extremes or mere pragmatism on behalf of the noble pursuit to be elected to high office so to effectively lead a diverse and great nation into a better future for all.

RFK funeral train photograph Paul Fusco

In today’s moribund politics of division, RFK’s ideals for America were no less difficult to achieve in 1968 than in 2018 – or beyond. After RFK was killed, an already-polarized presidential election of 1968 led to a predominance over the next fifty years of a strong brand of partisan politics. Kennedy’s more inclusive approach turned up historically truncated and, with decades of often mean-spirited political partisanship, even chafed at as exotic or, at least, futile. Yet that Kennedy brand of Democratic politics would never accept such defeatism then or now.

robert kennedy 6/5/68

RFK’s last words to the American people moments before he was shot speaks volumes to his governing approach or methodology for the future and which absolutely requires the many hands and votes of the American people to accomplish, whether it is 1968 or 2018. RFK said: “What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. What has been going on in the United States for the last three years – the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society – the division, whether it’s between blacks and whites, the poor and the more affluent, or between different age groups or the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together, that we are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the next few months… The country wants to move in a different direction. We want to deal with our own problems in our own country and we want peace in Vietnam…The fact is all of us are involved in this great effort – and it’s a great effort not on behalf of the Democratic Party – it’s a great effort on behalf of the United States – on behalf of our own people- on behalf of mankind all around the globe and the next generation of Americans… What we are going to do in the rural areas of our country? What we are going to do for those who still suffer in the United States from hunger? What we are going to do around the rest of the globe? And whether we are going to continue the policies that have been so unsuccessful, in Vietnam of American troops and American marines carrying the major burden of that conflict I do not want to and I think we should move in a different direction. So I thank all of you who made this possible this evening, all of the effort that you have made, and all of the people whose names I haven’t mentioned but did all of the work…So I thank all of you…And now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there…”

kennedys
RFK funeral train photograph Paul Fusco
RFK

What has been going on in the United States for the last three years – the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society – the division, whether it’s between blacks and whites, the poor and the more affluent, or between different age groups or the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together, that we are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), remarks, June 5, 1968, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California, following victories in the California and South Dakota Democratic presidential primaries.

Visitors at RFK’s gravesite, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, June 2001. Photograph by author.