Robert F. Kennedy crouched beside a toddler in Cleveland, Mississippi, trying to coax a response from the child, who was searching for crumbs on the floor. Kennedy, by this time—April 11, 1967—was a US Senator from New York and in the second day of a visit to the state.
As he tried to interact with young David White, Kennedy, the father of ten children at the time, could easily see the evidence of malnutrition on the listless child’s young body and was deeply moved. After a few more minutes with Annie White’s son, Kennedy left the impoverished woman’s home, where she struggled each day just to feed her six children, to speak with waiting reporters. This was not just a Mississippi problem, he told them, but a “reflection on our society, on all of us.”
Three other senators had traveled with him to Jackson for a day of hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty on the upcoming renewal of War on Poverty programs. After the hearing in Jackson, where he heard from state officials and civil rights advocates, such as Marian Wright (later Edelman), Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, and Amzie Moore, Kennedy and Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania flew to Greenville and drove up through the Delta to Cleveland and Clarksdale. The pair of senators, with Wright, Moore, and others serving as guides and trailed by local and national media, visited job-training sites, literacy programs, and Head Start classrooms. At Kennedy’s urging, however, they also made unscheduled stops at the homes of the poor along the way before returning to Washington.
Kennedy’s 1967 visit is perhaps his most well-known interaction with Mississippi, but it was not his first. In the decade that preceded the visit to the Delta, electoral politics and civil rights conflicts had shaped his encounters with the state and its leaders.
During an unsuccessful bid to earn John F. Kennedy the Democratic nomination for vice president at the Democratic National Convention in 1956, Robert Kennedy had courted the Mississippi delegation. By 1960, however, many of the state’s political leaders had soured on John Kennedy’s candidacy because of their intransigent commitment to white supremacy, and the state threw its support behind a slate of unpledged electors in the general election.
As his brother’s US attorney general from 1961 through 1964, Robert Kennedy also played a pivotal role in some of the most significant events in Mississippi’s turbulent journey through the civil rights era. Furthermore, the intransigence of the state’s leaders and much of its white population, combined with their willingness to transgress long-standing legal norms, break laws, and resort even to deadly violence to preserve segregation provided the president’s young attorney general with a harsh, eye-opening education on the tragic realities of racial oppression.
Robert Kennedy often stumbled during those years, too frequently making deals to preserve the Kennedy administration’s good relations with powerful segregationist lawmakers like US senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis, and, tragically, too often underestimating the danger that the state’s black citizens and advocates faced as they pushed to claim their most basic rights as American citizens.
Robert Kennedy later admitted: “I won’t say I stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before I became attorney general.” He tended to clumsily equate segregation with the discrimination that the Irish had faced in Boston in the previous century. Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy biographer, pointed out that for the young attorney general in 1961, advocating for civil rights was undeniably the moral position, but it was “filled with operational difficulties.” At this point in his life, “he did not see racial injustice as the urgent American problem, as the contradiction, now at last intolerable, between the theory and the practice of the republic,” Schlesinger wrote.
Events such as the arrival and subsequent unconstitutional jailing of the Freedom Riders in 1961, the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, the assassination of NAACP Mississippi field secretary, Medgar Evers, the influx of college students to work for civil rights during 1964 Freedom Summer, and the kidnapping and murder of three of them, forced Kennedy to confront the consequences of the federal government’s pattern of turning a blind eye to South’s transgressions, and, as each challenge unfolded, his commitment to civil rights gradually deepened.
After his brother’s assassination, a grieving Kennedy stayed on as Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That summer, Kennedy finally resigned with an eye on the New York senate race, an office he won with the help of Medgar Evers’s brother, Charles Evers, who spoke on his behalf to the New York NAACP convention.
In 1966, Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, traveled to the University of Mississippi at the invitation of law students. Although Kennedy’s invitation caused controversy with state leaders—many of whom blamed Kennedy for the riots during the integration of the university—and prompted a request from Kennedy for a safety report ahead of time from the FBI, the Kennedys were surprised and gratified to receive a warm, enthusiastic welcome from the several thousand students and faculty who attended.
During his speech, Kennedy regaled the students with a description of his behind-the-scenes negotiations with then Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, which brought shouts of laughter and a standing ovation from the crowd. Kennedy’s revelation of Barnett’s cartoonish negotiations was front-page news across the state and effectively doomed the former governor’s further political prospects.
Although he had not yet decided to run for president when he met Annie White’s young son in 1967, Kennedy never forgot about the needs of the hungry children he saw in Mississippi. In fact, he was speaking about them minutes before he was assassinated. Although the faltering war in Vietnam outweighed all other considerations as he contemplated running for president in 1968, both John Seigenthaler, a former aide and close friend, and Kennedy’s younger brother, Edward Kennedy, believed that the trip to Mississippi was the crucial catalyst, at least on the domestic side, for Robert Kennedy’s decision to run.
- Nicholas Andrew Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (2006)
- Charles Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2014)
- Ellen Meacham, Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi (2018)
- Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy: His Times (1978)
- Larry Tye, Robert F. Kennedy: The Making of A Liberal Icon (2016)