Patricia Sullivan


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

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021

A close-up

Some readers will probably turn to the images first—and that is a good place to start. There are two inserts that tell the story in pictures. We see Kennedy on the phone at 2 a.m. with an aide in Montgomery during the peak violence of the Freedom Rides; Bob Moses working on voter registration in Mississippi; Kennedy visiting with Black children whose schools were closed for four years in Prince Edward County, Virginia; Kennedy as a presidential candidate speaking to a rally organized by the Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles; and RFK walking through the rubble in Washington DC after the city exploded in the wake of King’s assassination. On June 14, 1963, Bobby Kennedy addressed protesters gathered outside the Justice Department, who called for federal action to end segregation in the South. By this point, Justice Department lawyers were hard at work drafting a strong civil rights bill. Library of Congress.

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 12, “Suppose God is Black.” It opens with two defining and overlapping events: Robert Kennedy’s five-day long trip through South Africa and the “March against Fear” in Mississippi to promote voter registration. Following a police assault and arrest in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael famously issued the call for Black Power. It had an electrifying impact. Mainstream media, moderate civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, and most of the political establishment condemned Black Power as racist and divisive. Kennedy did not. He praised the March for showing that Black citizens would keep up their efforts “until they establish equality.” At the end of August, Look magazine published an article by Kennedy on his trip to South Africa entitled, “Suppose God is Black.” The title and his image were prominently featured on the cover. It was a bold statement by a man of deep faith that invited a different angle of vision during the summer of Black Power.

Focusing on the summer of 1966, the third consecutive summer of urban uprisings, the chapter crystalizes fundamental differences between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It looks beyond the personality differences that absorbed the media and biographers and historians. The stark differences in how they responded to the racial crisis in the cities was a key factor in Kennedy’s decision to challenge LBJ for the presidency. Johnson had become obsessed with winning the war in Vietnam to the detriment of the War on Poverty. He saw the urban crisis as a law and order problem and saw the solution as more vigorous law enforcement.

In the fall of 1966, Kennedy told 15,000 students at UC Berkeley that America had one choice: “face our difficulties and strive to overcome them, or turn away, bringing increasing repression, increasing human pain, and civil strife.” No national concern was more pressing, he emphasized, than “the revolution within our gates, the struggle of the Negro American for full equality and full freedom.”