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How Robert F. Kennedy Shaped His Brother’s Response to Civil Rights

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Sullivan is the author of Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, the first history of the formative decades of America’s oldest civil rights organization; Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era; and Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years. She is William Arthur Fairey II Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

America is in the midst of a racial reckoning which mirrors the crisis that commanded national attention in 1963. In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace emerged as the standard bearer of white defiance in the face of court orders calling for an end to racial segregation in American schools. As a showdown loomed over the desegregation of the University of Alabama, Wallace framed the crisis as one of an over-reaching federal government. He evoked Confederate symbols and stoked fears of a mass insurgency, threatening riots similar to the ones that accompanied the desegregation of the University of Mississippi the previous year, which left two people dead and hundreds injured. Robert Kennedy’s role in pushing through and enforcing groundbreaking changes in racial relations was pivotal in a moment that culminated with the introduction of far-reaching civil rights legislation.

In January 1963, Alabama’s new governor, George Wallace, famously declared in his inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace’s pledge to personally block school integration would immediately be tested when a federal court ordered the University of Alabama to admit two Black students. Wallace, who held power over the university and state law enforcement and enjoyed a close alliance with the Klan, was determined to enhance his stature through a showdown with the federal government. Bobby Kennedy had made it clear through his personal intervention at the University of Mississippi that he was committed to enforcing desegregation. He was hardly reassured when members of the university’s board of trustees, following a special executive meeting convened by the governor in March, described Wallace as “scared,” “crazy,” and acting “like a raving maniac.” Eager to avoid another armed show-down between federal and local authorities, he decided to seek a face- to-face meeting with the governor. Wallace agreed to meet at the state capitol on the morning of April 25.

Bobby Kennedy had been to Alabama once before, in 1958, when he’d been praised by Governor Jim Folsom, but after the Freedom Rides, the Alabama Democratic Party had condemned him for “actions contrary to our Southern traditions.” He reached Montgomery on the afternoon of April 24 and gave a short press conference in which he voiced the hope that Alabama’s race problems could “be resolved peacefully in the courts.” He disputed a question that implied that the administration’s civil rights actions were politically motivated. Politics, he said, “wouldn’t change what I have done at the University of Mississippi or what I might do in the future. We would have done the same thing even if it meant losing fifty states.” A reporter asked, “Mr. Kennedy, are you a communist?” “No,” he said, “and I am glad to clarify that.”

RFK Smiles
Portrait of American politician US Attorney General (and later New York Senator) Robert F. Kennedy (1925 -1968), early to mid 1960s.Weegee(Arthur Fellig)-International Center of Photography

RFK spent the night at Andrews Air Force base, avoiding segregated accommodations. The next morning, Judge Frank Johnson joined the attorney general for an early breakfast. Few knew Wallace as well as Johnson. They had been classmates at the University of Alabama and had gone head-to- head several years earlier when Wallace, then a circuit court judge, had refused Johnson’s order to open voting records to inspection by the Civil Rights Commission. In a bizarre late-night meeting at Johnson’s home, Wallace had finally given in when he had been told he would go to jail if he did not comply. Johnson’s briefing confirmed Kennedy’s apprehensions. Little, however, prepared him for the scene that would greet him at the state capitol later that morning. More than one hundred state police surrounded the capitol building, each with a Confederate flag emblazoned on his helmet. Governor Wallace had had the Confederate flag hoisted over the capitol the day before the visit—where it would remain for thirty years. At the front entrance of the capitol, Kennedy and Burke Marshall made their way around a wreath of red and white carnations and a Confederate flag marking the place where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. The women who had covered the marker stood close by. “We didn’t want the enemy stepping on sacred ground,” one told a reporter.

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As Robert Kennedy strode through the corridors of the capitol and made his way to Wallace’s office, he was greeted by office workers and janitorial staff and paused briefly to shake hands with white and Black workers. Wallace began by announcing that he was going to tape the whole proceeding. That meant, Kennedy recalled, that they had to say things on the basis “that it was going to be played on the local radio station.” He could not let anything Wallace say “go by as if it had been unanswered. It made it difficult.” Wallace insisted his responsibility was to the people of Alabama. He charged that the central government was attempting to “rewrite all law” and preparing to force integration on the state with “troops and bayonets,” as they had done in Mississippi, and he pledged never to submit voluntarily. He lashed out at Martin Luther King Jr., and asked Kennedy about crime in Washington, DC, and other northern cities, in a clear effort to link Black protest with criminality. Kennedy challenged every one of Wallace’s misleading statements. He said integration was a simple question of following court orders, and he rebutted the governor’s claim that the federal government was poised to send troops.

The two men traded charges and counter-charges for ninety minutes. Wallace was determined to stand as a bulwark against integration and federal intervention. The defiant governor was at odds with the university’s board of trustees, alumni council, and student legislature as well as local newspapers, all of whom were advocating that the university abide by the ruling of the court. Kennedy emerged from the meeting “slightly shaken,” in the words of one reporter, but with a better understanding of Alabama’s feisty governor. Later, at Maxwell Field before leaving for South Carolina, Kennedy said, “It’s like a foreign country. There’s no communication. What do you do? I’ve never been asked if I’m a communist before.”

The showdown at the University of Alabama was very much on Kennedy’s mind when he returned to Washington. On May 21, federal district judge Harlan Grooms had ordered the university to admit Vivian Malone and James Hood by June 10. Born and raised in Mobile and elected to the National Honor Society, Malone had received a BA from Alabama A&M University. When the school lost its accreditation, she had applied to the University of Alabama’s School of Commerce and Business Administration and was admitted as a junior. James Hood had attended Clark College in Atlanta, part of the historically Black Atlanta University Center. He transferred to the University of Alabama to study clinical psychology, which was not available at Clark. In response to the judge’s ruling, Governor Wallace repeated his pledge to personally bar the entrance of any Negro who attempted to enroll in the University of Alabama. On May 24, a complaint signed by Kennedy asked the federal court to enjoin Wallace from interfering with the students. In a sweeping injunction issued on June 5, Judge Seybourn Lynne forbade Wallace from “physically interposing his person” to block the entrance of the students. Violation of the judge’s order would immediately result in civil contempt of court proceedings, leading to possible fines and jail time.

Burke Marshall, who had gone to Birmingham for the hearing, said that Judge Lynne made it clear to the governor’s lawyers that if Wallace violated the order in a substantial way, the punishment would be significant jail time, upward of six months. Wallace publicly stated that he would not let the people of Alabama down. He would go to campus to raise “constitutional issues” against the “omnipotent march of the central government.” To those with an ear to hear, a slight change could be detected: Wallace appealed to his fellow Alabamians to maintain law and order and to stay away from the campus. The injunction clamped a tight rein on the governor. Whether he would recognize the authority of the court remained a matter of speculation until the students’ arrival on campus in June. During this pivotal period, the New York Times carried a front-page story on June 10 reporting “Dr. King Denounces the President on Rights.” In an interview with David Susskind that had aired on television the previous day, King issued his broadest attack to date on Kennedy, charging him with a failure of leadership. Comparing JFK’s record to Eisenhower’s, King said that Kennedy had “substituted an inadequate approach for a miserable one.” King urged the president to talk about integration in moral terms, rather than purely as a political issue, and suggested that he revive FDR’s “fireside chats” to explain civil rights to the American people. Within two days, King would completely revise his assessment of John Kennedy’s leadership.

By late afternoon on Monday, June 10, it was clear to Bobby Kennedy that there would be no escaping the raw realties of yet another major battle in the slow and violent demise of Jim Crow. JFK met in the Oval Office with his brother and Burke Marshall to discuss the pending showdown in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. Over the next forty-eight hours, a series of events would mark a turning point in the country’s racial history. The court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama had finally reached its day of reckoning. Bobby Kennedy and his team were as ready as they could be. In addition to securing a federal injunction setting legal limits on Governor Wallace’s actions, RFK and Marshall had cultivated a broad network of support and intelligence in Alabama. Floyd Mann, the former head of the Alabama Highway Patrol, offered confidential information to Marshall and John Doar about preparations for possible violence. Frank Rose, president of the university, had known Bobby Kennedy for ten years, and the two had spoken many times about the unfolding events “He was on our side,” Kennedy recalled. Rose wanted the students enrolled and quietly did all he could to cooperate.

Meanwhile, over the preceding weeks, RFK, Marshall, and others in the administration had reached out to businessmen and civic leaders in Alabama, enlisting their support and appealing to their interest in seeing that the inevitable desegregation of the university did not dissolve into violence. The riots at Ole Miss had been followed by the exodus of the provost, several department heads, and distinguished faculty, as well as a dramatic drop in student enrollment from outside the state. The Kennedys could be confident that leading citizens of the state had made their concerns known to the governor. Still, Wallace remained the wild card. “What made it so difficult,” Bobby recalled, “was not really knowing exactly what the governor was going to do. If it collapsed into violence—you could never explain why you didn’t do more.”

Bobby went to the White House Monday afternoon to meet with the president. The brothers, who had not seen each other for six days, spoke briefly together in the Oval Office before joining others in the adjoining meeting room. Presidential aides Theodore Sorenson, Kenny O’Donnell, and Larry O’Brien were present at various points. Nicholas Katzenbach was in Tuscaloosa, reviewing the logistics and plans for the next day. Kennedy and Marshall reported on the preparations and various scenarios that might unfold. No one had been in direct communication with Wallace since Bobby had met with the governor at the end of April. It was clear that Wallace would at least initially block the students’ entry. Would he get out of the way? Would he resist in such a way as to compel the federal government to arrest him for contempt?

A university official warned that if Wallace was arrested, “all hell would break loose.” While Wallace had publicly committed himself to ensuring there was no violence, could he maintain order if violence erupted? Two nights earlier, 1,500 had participated in a Ku Klux Klan rally just outside Tuscaloosa, where a fifty-foot cross had been burned. Katzenbach and Robert Kennedy were both in close contact with General Creighton Abrams, ensuring that there would be no confusion about the role of the military. If troops were ultimately needed, it was agreed they could be mobilized quickly and with less fanfare by the National Guard. There was some concern as to whether Alabamians in the Guard would perform their duties under such circumstances. President Kennedy was interested in all the details and intimately involved in discussions and strategizing. The Justice Department would not settle on a final course of action until Tuesday morning.

At some point during the meeting, the timing of the introduction of the civil rights bill was discussed, along with the idea of having President Kennedy address the nation. Sorensen, O’Donnell, and O’Brien opposed an address. They thought it would involve the president personally in a way that would be politically disadvantageous. Bobby had a different view. He thought it was important for the president to go on television and address the nation during this time—not only to discuss legislation but also to talk about the problems the country faced and to demonstrate that he was concerned and directly involved. JFK listened to both positions, but he had already made up his mind. He told them all to “help us get ready, because we may want to do it tomorrow.” Bobby said he had a draft speech that included “some pretty good sentences and paragraphs.” Whether the president would give the speech on Tuesday night would depend on what happened on the University of Alabama campus that day.

Bobby was on the phone with Katzenbach late into the night and early the next morning. It was hard for Kennedy “to deal . . . with all of the uncertainties” from a distance, Katzenbach recalled. “The mess in Mississippi had to be on his mind all the time. His concern came through with every call.” The two men knew that Wallace wanted a platform to publicly stand up to the federal government. The governor had marked out the place where he would stand in front of the admissions building in order to ensure the best angle for the television cameras. Kennedy and Katzenbach agreed that it was best to let Wallace have his show, so long as he retreated and allowed the students to enter. Wallace had indicated that he might back down in the face of troops. Kennedy made sure that the National Guard could be federalized in time to arrive on campus by the afternoon.

By early Tuesday morning, RFK, Marshall, and Katzenbach had finally settled on a strategy to achieve their three primary ends—gaining the admission of the students to the university, avoiding having to arrest the governor, and doing so peacefully. The team in Tuscaloosa and Washington knew that the best-laid plans could unravel at any moment. In the aftermath, some charged that there had been coordination between Wallace and the administration; that was not true. “We didn’t know what Wallace was going to do, and he didn’t know what we were going to do,” Marshall confided to a reporter several days later. “We guessed right.” The desegregation of the University of Alabama occurred in “a circus like atmosphere,” Claude Sitton reported in the New York Times. Entrances to the campus were sealed off by yellow barriers, and newsmen and state troopers dominated the campus. Governor Wallace arrived shortly before 10 a.m. at Foster Auditorium. The colonnaded three-story building housed the gym and served as the site for student registration. More than three hundred reporters, photographers, cameramen, and soundmen were clustered close by. The governor joked with newsmen as he was fitted out with a microphone attached to a public address system. The two cars carrying Katzenbach, John Doar, Vivian Malone, James Hood and several others arrived close to 10:30 a.m. As was planned, Katzenbach left the students in the car and approached the governor, walking along a path lined by state troopers. A television cameraman asked Katzenbach to wear a microphone; he refused. Wallace, who was perched behind a wooden lectern in front of the entrance to the auditorium, held up his hand to signal for him to stop. Unwilling to be bossed, Katzenbach came several steps closer.

With the temperature nearing 100 degrees, he stood under the blazing sun and handed the governor a proclamation from the president, directing the governor to admit the students in accordance with the law. Wallace interrupted Katzenbach and read a long statement, refusing to “willingly submit to the illegal usurpation of power by the federal government.” Katzenbach told Wallace he was not interested in a “show.” When the governor once again refused to step aside, he told the governor that the orders of the court would be enforced. “These students will remain on this campus. They will register today. They will go to school tomorrow.” Wallace stood defiantly in the door, head thrown back, lips tightly compressed, and Katzenbach left. As had been previously arranged, Vivian Malone and James Hood were taken to their dormitory rooms. Bobby Kennedy monitored developments from his office, now a command post, with Marshall and several other aides. They had four maps of Tuscaloosa, a television set and radio, and a radio-telephone hookup linking them to Katzenbach and other members of the administration on the ground.

Bobby reported the standoff with Wallace to the president, who issued the order to federalize the Alabama National Guard. Three National Guard troop carriers, led by General Henry Graham, arrived on campus shortly after 3 p.m. and took up position outside Foster Auditorium. Wallace had gotten word to Graham, a Birmingham real estate developer and friend, that Wallace was prepared to leave quietly but wanted to say a few words first. While Katzenbach greeted the news with a large measure of relief, he resented the fact that Wallace would be given a chance to take an encore. Once again, the governor stood at the entrance to the auditorium. General Graham, dressed in combat fatigues with the Confederate flag of the 31st (Dixie) Division stitched on his breast pocket, saluted the governor and began in a grim voice, “it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside on the order of the President of the United States.” Katzenbach was appalled by Graham’s apologetic appeal to the rogue governor. Wallace acknowledged Graham’s difficult position, and then issued one final blast at what he called “the trend toward military dictatorship.” He pledged that he “would continue the constitutional fight in Montgomery” and then abruptly departed. Within minutes, James Hood entered the auditorium, followed by Vivian Malone, to register for the summer term. Their enrollment marked the first crack in Alabama’s segregated education system. Although he lost the battle, Governor Wallace had become the standard bearer of white defiance, couched as resistance to an intrusive and overreaching federal government.

Vivian Malone & James Hood Enrol At The University Of Alabama
American students Vivian Malone (1942-2005) and James Hood (1942-2013) walk through the crowds as they become the first African American students to enrol at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 11th June 1963.Daily Express/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive

Upon learning that the students had registered, JFK decided that he would go on television that evening to address the nation. Bobby and Burke Marshall arrived at the White House at 7:00 and met with the president in the Cabinet room. The brothers discussed what JFK would say, as JFK took notes on an envelope. Ted Sorenson returned with a revised draft of a text just minutes before Kennedy went on air at 8 p.m. Bobby encouraged him to talk extemporaneously. Marshall recalled that the president seemed unfazed by the last minute preparations. “He knew what he was going to say, and I guess it didn’t make much difference if it was typed or not.”

With his speech that night, JFK aligned his administration with the civil rights movement and its vision for America’s future, and announced that he would introduce a major civil rights bill. Minutes after he completed his remarks, Martin Luther King Jr. telegrammed the president: “Your speech to the nation was one of the most eloquent, profound, and unequivocal pleas for justice and freedom of all men ever made by a President.” Kennedy’s passionate acknowledgement of “the moral issue involved in the integration struggle” and his encouraging words, King wrote, “will bring a new sense of hope to the millions of disinherited people in our country.” The legislation he proposed, if enacted, would “move our nation considerably closer” to the American ideal.

Adapted from Sullivan’s new book Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White, published by Harvard University Press.

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