Patricia Sullivan


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

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021

The wide angle

My last book was a history of the early decades of the NAACP, from its founding in 1909 up through the 1950s. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement explored how several generations resisted and challenged the color line, not only in the South, but in towns and cities across the country, as African American migration reshaped America’s racial landscape. It is a story of how legal brilliance, grassroots organizing, the strength of Black culture and institutions, interracial alliances, and a fundamental faith in democracy built and sustained long-term struggles to uproot racism and advance justice. It is also a story of the deep and tangled roots of racism in America, and the ignorance, indifference, and opportunism that accounts for its resilience.

My work on the book left me with questions about the civil rights struggles of the sixties. When protests drew national attention to segregation and white violence in the South, nearly half of African Americans lived in the North and West, in communities where segregation was deeply entrenched. Unlike the South, segregation was not mandated by law in northern urban communities. It was created and enforced by public policies, private interests, and white racism, resulting in intolerable conditions: poverty, crowded housing, run-down schools, high unemployment, and abusive policing.

The history of the racial justice struggles of the early 1960s has focused largely on the South, but that is only half the story. Bobby Kennedy was uniquely positioned—as attorney general, presidential advisor, U.S. Senator, presidential candidate—to see racial conditions and confront the ways race structured all facets of American life. His concerns about youth, particularly those caught up in the criminal justice system, drew him to poor urban areas. A Black civil rights activist described him this way: he went, he saw, he listened, he grew.

When the legislative triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement were quickly followed by uprisings in northern cities, Kennedy was not surprised. The Watts uprisings in 1965 lasted five days and thrust the urban crisis to the center of national attention. Public figures across the spectrum responded with calls for law and order, tapping into the pernicious equation of Black identity and criminality. Kennedy was unusual in that he actually sympathized with those who were setting cities on fire. “There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law,” he said. “To many Negroes, the law is the enemy … it has almost always been used against him.” The crux of America’s racial crisis, he insisted, was lodged in history, and sustained by ignorance and prejudice.

By the end of the 1960s Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., aligned in opposition to the Johnson Administration’s war in Vietnam, were both speaking out forcefully against racial and economic injustice. In 1968, a time of deepening racial turmoil and division, RFK’s presidential run and King’s Poor People’s Campaign represented a leap of faith, their final effort to bend the country in a new direction.