Patricia Sullivan


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

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021


I completed Justice Rising at a time of nationwide racially charged protests with direct echoes of the 1960s. Once again, mass protests have focused national attention on rampant racial injustices and triggered new demands for change.

My book speaks to this guardedly hopeful moment. In the late 1960s, aggressive policing and mass incarceration ultimately prevailed as the response to the urban rebellions sparked by lack of opportunity, substandard conditions, and unjust policing. But that could not diminish what was achieved during the sixties and the legacy that endures. One of the most powerful social movements in American history—through protests, organizing, and insistent demands—broke through, elevating the consciousness of many and creating both the pressure and opportunity for government action to dismantle segregation. At the same time, the Black freedom struggle grew, exposing the deep roots of racial inequality and changing American culture in fundamental ways. America is once again in a racially charged moment and this is a history with crucial lessons for a continuing struggle.

Robert Kennedy’s public life was forged by the racial reckoning of the sixties. This is a central theme of the book and I hope it will inform how he is remembered. His capacity to see and to grow is testimony to what is possible. After Kennedy’s death, James Baldwin, with whom he had a charged exchange as Attorney General, reflected on the essence of who RFK was. He had a mind “that could be reached,” Baldwin commented. “He was somebody in the twentieth century with enough passion and energy and patience.” Such qualities are essential to meeting the challenges we face today.