Patricia Sullivan


On her book Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021

In a nutshell

Justice Rising places Robert Kennedy squarely at the center of the movement for racial justice in the 1960s. In reconsidering Kennedy’s public life, the book offers a fresh account of how history, race, and politics converged during the sixties.

Bobby Kennedy emerged on the political stage just as mass protests erupted across the South. As Attorney General and his brother’s closest adviser, he grasped the moment. He assembled a brilliant team of lawyers and was prepared to put the weight of the federal government behind school segregation rulings and the enforcement of voting rights. Less than four months into the Kennedy administration, when an interracial group—the Freedom Riders—tested their right to travel together across the South, RFK confronted the white defiance and state-sanctioned violence dedicated to maintaining segregation. Speaking of government officials in Alabama, he told an aide, “those fellows are at war with this country.”

RFK was also keenly focused on the poverty, segregation, and criminal justice abuses that plagued urban Black communities. He helped establish community-based youth programs in sixteen cities across the country and visited each one of them, seeing conditions firsthand. Early in 1963, he referenced the betrayal of Emancipation’s promise, describing a racial crisis “100 years in the making.” The consequences of racial discrimination, he said, were massive and “carry on for generation after generation. To face this openly and squarely is the challenge of the decade.”

A prevailing view is that the Kennedy brothers did not do enough to support the Civil Rights Movement. My book challenges this orthodoxy. By focusing on the depth of the Black Freedom struggle that crested in the sixties and the racial divide that structured American life and politics, it illustrates how John and Robert Kennedy faced the national dimensions of a racial crisis that gripped the nation. During the administration’s brief tenure, they responded to the movement’s demands as well as to the opportunities it created for bold leadership. In the spring of 1963, at considerable political risk, JFK publicly aligned the administration with the struggle of African Americans for full equality.

John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963—a shattering experience for RFK—ended a remarkable partnership. Together they led in crafting historic civil rights legislation and forged the bipartisan coalition critical to its passage the following summer. By then, Kennedy recognized the limits of law in uprooting the racial inequality that permeated American society.

Elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in November 1964, Kennedy became a public figure in his own right, just as the country entered one of its most tumultuous periods. Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic escalation of America’s involvement in Vietnam undermined his War on Poverty and fueled a massive anti-war movement while cities across the country became racial battlegrounds—all factors that ultimately pitted RFK against LBJ.

Race was at the center of Kennedy’s widening vision, one that encompassed the desperate poverty in cities, in the Mississippi Delta, on Indian reservations, in the coal fields of Kentucky, and among migrant workers. He exposed these conditions and pushed for expanded anti-poverty programs. The raw, oppressive environment in urban areas consumed his attention and fueled his creative energy—as seen in the community-controlled development project he pioneered in Bedford Stuyvesant. It has been described as “Black Power in Action.”

The book concludes with Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1968, a barnstorming campaign through all parts of the country—a fleeting glimpse of the possibility and urgency of that moment, which ended tragically with his assassination and that of Martin Luther King Jr.