Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
Teaser Image

Robert F. Kennedy

Title: Robert Kennedy
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Robert F. Kennedy was a leading and influential political figure during the struggles for racial and economic equality of the 1960s. Formally trained as a lawyer and experientially as a politician, Kennedy served as attorney general to the United States from 1961 to 1964, during some of the most pivotal years of the civil rights movement. From 1965 until his assassination in 1968, he served as the U.S. Senator from New York, using his position and his political expertise to champion for racial, social, and economic equality.

Born the seventh of nine children into the prominent, powerful, and wealthy Kennedy family on November 20, 1925, Robert "Bobby" Francis Kennedy graduated from Harvard University in 1948 with a degree in government and earned a law degree from The University of Virginia Law School in 1951. Throughout the 1950s, Kennedy worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice and for various Senate Committees. In 1952, he served as campaign manager for his brother, John F. Kennedy, during his run for senator of Massachusetts. And in 1959, he managed another John campaign: his bid to become the 35th president of the United States.

Elected to the presidency in 1960, John appointed Robert as his attorney general. Robert's job was to ensure the constitutional rights of the American people, and nowhere was he called to do so more than in the Southern struggles for racial equality. Initially, Robert believed that the most necessary gain in these struggles would be unhindered access to the ballot box. African American citizens in the South often faced harassment for exercising their right to vote, so Robert dispatched federal marshals into these Southern states to investigate and begin prosecuting counties that condoned voter intimidation.

While Robert tried to contain the Justice Department's policies to legislation, students, and civil rights leaders opted for a different strategy. Lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, protest marches, school integration, and many other varieties of nonviolent direct action proliferated across the South. Robert provided Justice Department support wherever possible. He dispatched federal marshals to pacify angry mobs during the first Freedom Rides of May 1961. He encouraged President Kennedy to provide armed protection for endangered persons, such as for James Meredith, who in September 1962 integrated the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Robert also negotiated with segregationist Southern leaders—such as Alabama governor John Patterson, who opposed the integration of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa—to enforce federal law.

By this time, Robert understood that although enfranchisement was certainly important, only a more comprehensive guarantee of civil liberties could ensure the rights of U.S. citizens. He urged his brother to draft a comprehensive civil rights bill to send to Congress, and he insisted that President Kennedy publicly address the civil rights issue. Thus, on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy became the first president to publicly declare the struggle for racial equality a moral issue. Immediately thereafter, civil rights leaders began planning a national March on Washington for Freedom, Jobs, and Justice to advocate for quick passage of this legislation. Robert's Justice Department guaranteed the marchers federal protection.

The March on Washington took place on August 1963, but John did not live to see the passage of the civil rights legislation. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, assumed the presidency and asked Robert to remain attorney general. In July 1964, Robert witnessed the signing of his brother's civil rights bill into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next month, Robert resigned his post as attorney general in order to campaign in New York for an U.S. Senate seat.

As a U.S. senator, Robert continued to fight for racial equality, as well as for economic and social equality. In the latter half of the 1960s, nonviolent protest gave way to more confrontational methods. Riots erupted in urban centers around the country, but rather than condemn the rioters, Robert encouraged people to consider the conditions that might engender such actions. He called attention to inequities in education, housing, employment, and living wages. He took steps to mitigate against such injustices, supporting, for example, the United Farm Workers and forming the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education. He visited the impoverished Mississippi Delta in 1967, and afterwards, actively pursued food assistance for the area. Such community rehabilitation endeavors, the most famous of which revitalized the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn, occupied his Senate career. He implemented community development corporations, programs that combined residents' needs and energies with federal grants and private sector investment in community improvement.

In March 1968, Robert announced that he would challenge Johnson for the presidency. Over the next few months, Robert stormed the primary race, bolstered by the overwhelming support of those to whom he reached out most: African Americans, Hispanics, student protestors, the poor, the dispossessed, and the suffering. On June 4, 1968, celebrating an important primary win in California, Robert was shot at the Ambassador Hotel. He died two days later.

Aghigh Ebrahimi

Further Reading
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Touchstone, 1988; Huevel, Vanden, and Milton Gwirtzman. On His Own: Robert F. Kennedy. New York: Doubleday, 1970; Kennedy, Robert F. To Seek A Newer World. New York: Doubleday, 1967; Palermo, Joseph A. Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism. New York: Pearson Education, 2008; Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978; Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

ABC-cLIO Footer