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Why did LBJ, a staunch segregationist, champion and sign the 1964 Civil Rights Bill?

Why did LBJ, a staunch segregationist, champion and sign the 1964 Civil Rights Bill?

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Lyndon B. Johnson with regards to the 1964 Civil Rights Act…
From the Atlantic

The times called for a leader who could subdue the vast political and administrative forces arrayed against change-for someone with the strategic and tactical instincts to overcome the most-entrenched opponents, and the courage to decide instantly, in a moment of great uncertainty and doubt, to throw his full weight behind progress. The civil-rights movement had the extraordinary figure of Lyndon Johnson.


For LBJ's first 20 years on the hill he was a committed segregationist. Not only voting with the south to suppress civil rights bills but a political leader crafting the strategies which would be used to defeat such bills. The first civil rights bill Johnson supported was in 1957, and then in 1964 of course Johnson as president would not only sign the most comprehensive civil rights bill in the history of the country up to that point but would champion that bill through congress.

What happened?

Why did this life long segregationist flip and become a politician forever after associated with civil rights?

"Why?" questions are particularly difficult to answer. It is not possible to stare into Johnson's soul, searching for motivation, from our vantage point more than fifty years later; instead we are left attempting to analyze his recorded acts and words, leveraging our understanding of human nature.

However, I believe it is fundamental to recognize that racism acts on two levels in everyone: an emotional level and an intellectual level. At the emotional level racism develops from two deep aspects of human psyche: tendencies to "oppose the unfamiliar" and to "support the group". All of us encounter these tendencies; but they are merely tendencies. As humans we have the intellectual capability to set aside our emotional tendencies for rational reasons.

Scant few of us may have been born in situations where those of a different race are a natural everyday phenomenon. But we are all born with an innate sense of group, starting with the family and successively moving out through friends, neighbours, townsfolk, and eventually, in some, race. When an emotional tendency to favour friends and family manifests itself in word and deed, uninhibited by rationality, that is merely nepotism. When it spreads to a blanket preference for one's race, buttressed by rationalization and a dislike of the unfamiliar, then that can truly be labelled a deep racism.

But in between these I see an everyday racism, an autopilot racism if you will, where the emotional tendencies are simply allowed to wash over one without any attempt made to engage the intellect. It is the "lazy human's racism", of simply going with the flow. It seems to me that Johnson's racism was of this type. As a young ambitious legislator raised in a deeply racist and segregated South, "fighting the good fight" might have made him a better human; but would certainly have sunk any aspiration to a political career. Johnson was no Don Quixote, tilting at windmills; he had bigger plans.

Then in the mid-50's, while Johnson is Majority Leader in the Senate, segregation hits the national consciousness. His long-standing support for the poor and downtrodden suddenly coincides with a recognition that many of those are not only black; but are poor and downtrodden because of being black. At that moment the driven, ambitious, and yes, racist, Senator from Texas steps up to the challenge; confronts one of his own demons; and conquers it. He remakes himself as a Civil Rights Champion.

It seems appropriate to note here that, as President, Johnson was uniquely qualified in a manner that few of his predecessors, and none of his successors to date, have been: as a former Majority Leader of the Senate, Johnson understood the legislative process far better than most presidents. Johnson had perfected that craft in what his contemporaries termed "the full Johnson" (or alternatively "the Treatment"):

flattery, deals, pressure, threats - delivered at all hours in manners ranging from lofty to crude


As Richard Russell, the South's leader in the Senate during the 1960s, put it to a friend a few days after Kennedy's assassination: “You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”

So: "Why did Johnson champion the Civil Rights movement from 1957 on?"

Because it was the defining issue of his time; and, to be recognized as the great man that he aspired to be and saw himself as, one had to not only be on the right side; one had to be a champion of the right side.

LBJ was a complex figure. He is described as having "uncommon ambition", easily discarding considerations such as ideology for the sake of advancing his career. As a Texas congressman and then Senator, his voting in favour of segregation is completely in line with the political climate of the time and place. Seizing on the nation's grief and support for completing JFK's legacy, he may have seen the Civil Rights act as a political tool to shore up support for his own agenda.

And yet he has long been motivated, probably by his deep religiosity, to help the disadvantaged, such as the poor, but also including African Americans. This aspect he shared with his mentor FDR. For example, as president he launched a series of legislation under the War on Poverty moniker. It's possible that his support for Civil Rights fell along these lines.

But it's important to note that he was most likely racist. He would sometimes refer to the Civil Rights bill as the "nigger bill". He was a product of his time and place. Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the Civil Rights Act would not have passed if not for his tremendous efforts. Perhaps the best anecdote that illustrates his hypocrisy between ambition and compassion: after the passage of the act, his main concern was that he "delivered the South to the Republican party".

LBJ didn't flip. He was racist and only use the Civil Rights Act to further his power and his party's political power. LBJ said to Richard Russell, a fellow Democratic Senator from Georgia:

These Negroes, they're getting pretty uppity these days and that's a problem for us since they've got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we've got to do something about this, we've got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.

Here is the quote from the book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream:

Most important was the fact that the civil rights issue intensified and brought to focus Johnson's recurrent fear that “the whole thing”-his leadership, the Senate, the world-would fall apart if he lost control even for a moment, thus permitting the forces of violent division to “get loose.” “One real slip and we're done for,” he would say again and again, as if both his power and the future of America were fragilely suspended by a gossamer thread. Fearing that the issues of the civil rights question would be “taken over” by the “extremists”-denned as a choice between the irreconcilable views of Southern segregationists and Northern liberals-Johnson felt “driven” to seek a middle course, a legislative formula, that would represent some real progress-enough to moderate liberal passions, but not so unacceptable that it would provoke an open break with the party and its leadership. “I knew,” he later said, “that if I failed to produce on this one, my leadership would be broken into a hundred pieces; everything I had built up over the years would be completely undone.” 27

Less significant than the revelation of personal fear is the fact that Johnson exhibited the prescience to recognize that this issue had dimensions far greater than the difficulties of formulating practicable legislation. He seemed to understand that the issue of civil rights had created a crisis of legitimacy for both the Senate and the Democratic Party. Perhaps it was this understanding that helped Johnson not only to surmount his fears during this struggle but to transform them into instruments of leadership- influencing the action of others by persuading them to share in his apprehension of dangerous possibilities.

Johnson determined that his first task must be to persuade the “reasonable” Southerners to abandon their support for a filibuster, by demonstrating that even if it was successful the only result would be a Pyrrhic victory for the South. Northern passions were rising, becoming “hysterical,” and would no longer accept defeat by filibuster; instead, the attack would focus on the filibuster rule itself. He began with Russell: “These Negroes, they're getting pretty uppity these days and that's a problem for us since they've got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we've got to do something about this, we've got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don't move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there'll be no way of stopping them, we'll lose the filibuster and there'll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It'll be Reconstruction all over again.” 28

Why? Because from an egocentric point of view, LBJ became aware of situations that affected him and his (extended) "family". Please allow me to relate a specific anecdote to illustrate that LBJ's large ego (well-known, cited here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/04/three-new-revelations-about-lbj/377094/) was insulted by this everyday racism against his own chauffeur/manservant.

My father-in-law, who graduated from the LBJ Law School at University of Texas at Austin in the early 70s, related an anecdote to me while we were visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Garden.

The Johnsons had a black assistant/chauffeur/manservant. Eventually, this guy (not sure if it was Robert Parker or Carroll Kreach) had to deliver the Johnson's pet dogs to Washington, D.C. The Johnson's loved dogs and made their beagles "Him" and "Her" famous.

LBJ was disappointed that he showed-up in Washington looking tired as hell, and demanded to know what happened. As the assistant travelled across the southern United States, he was not allowed to rent a motel room for himself. But the dogs, of course, could stay all night.

This particular injustice struck the Johnsons personally. Their stature and good name couldn't prevent it. If anything, this supports @Pieter Geerkens answer that LBJ confronted his own autopilot, lazy racism. I assert that, in part, it happened because of someone close to him.

Maybe when Johnson said “it is not just Negroes but all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry,” he really meant all of us, including himself. --Adam Serwer

This is just to add to Pieter's excellent answer.

Some executives go through a "shark to dolphin" transition as they rise. Lyndon Johnson more than most. That is, they lose some of their rough edges as they get more and more responsibility and take on larger roles. Instead, they become more "statesmanlike."

That is to say that Johnson started out as a "hometown boy" as a local politician from the narrowest of rural backgrounds. Over time, he made a larger rise than most, to the national, and then international, stage. Unlike e.g Robert E. Lee, whose views never rose above the "state" level, Johnson "grew" into each new level, if not when he reached it, then sometime after. His earlier segregationist tendencies reflected his hometown views, and his civil rights tendencies reflected his national views.

This transition was best described in the multi volume series, Means of Ascent.

There is not much of a reason to assume that LBJ wasn't racist. It may be easier to forget in our age but racism like sexism and other forms of chauvinism is a natural urge in the context of humans' tribal history that needs to be educated out of civilized man in order to make him suitable for being a member of a global society.

This is a process taking generations, and it has constant setbacks of the "told you so" variety of semi-selffulfilling prophesies. This means that those in the position to make most progress are starting from being behind most.

The time to go through with racial emancipation had arrived, the Supreme Court had started setting some cornerstones establishing equal rights and pronouncing institutional cases of segregation as unconstitutional (cf Brown vs Board of Education in 1954). Eisenhower, a Republican president, had enforced the desegregation of education in Arkansas by putting the National Guard under Federal control and sending an army division for protecting black students, steps so uncompromising and radical that all of the leverage of a white Republican U.S. Army general was wanted in letting the U.S. change the course of its history for good.

As a Democrat, LBJ would have looked bad dialling back a movement for civil rights championed by a Republican president taking his oath of office seriously.

So he decided to make history by working with rather than against the times. It would have been stupid to sacrifice what Eisenhower had wrested from the nation when the respective topics were actually more likely to benefit the Democratic party than the Republican one in the long run (never mind that the Republican Lincoln fought the Civil War on the ticket of racial emancipation).

Current voter profiles along party lines show that LBJ did the Democratic party a long and defining service by taking ownership over the topic of civil rights.

In the late 1950's Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson was forming his first presidential campaign. He was advised his largest liabilities for national office was his vocal and consistent leadership in defense of segregation. This all but made him unelectable in the North and the West. In 1957 Johnson could not afford to alienate any of these regions. Johnson would try to finesse this liability. LBJ would outwardly support the 1957 civil rights bill, meanwhile he used his power as Senate Majority Leader to divert the bill into a committee controlled by a powerful southern committee Chairman. In the committee the 1957 bill would be neutered.

Johnson sent the (1957 civil rights) bill to the judiciary committee, led by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who proceeded to drastically alter the bill.

In 1957, Johnson hoped that he would both be given credit for passing the bill by the bills northern supporters, and would be given credit for weakening the bill from southerners opposed to the legislature. Legislatively Johnson was successful, politically it was a failure. The weakened bill passed. However, Johnson lost the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1960 to the junior Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy who had a much bolder agenda on civil rights.

As @congusbongus stated above in his answer… Lyndon Johnson was first an ambitious politician who long craved to become President. As a Freshman congressman in the 1930's he told his staffers to refer to him as LBJ because it sounded like FDR. "FDR-LBJ, LBJ-FDR "get it?". Johnson had arrived in Washington planning on becoming president. (From Master of the Senate, page 100)

In preparation for the 1964 election Johnson would prove to be one of the boldest and most effective desegregationists when it was politically in his interest to be so. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas Texas; leaving LBJ President. LBJ inherited a powerful political machine and an American public who mistrusted him due to his well known and lengthy resume as leader in the Senate. Johnson took immediate steps to close the daylight between himself and the fallen president.

The fallen President who had tried and failed to pass what would become the 1964 civil rights bill. Now with the entire nation mourning, it was in Johnson't political interest to do what many thought was impossible. Pass this landmark legislation and broaden his own political base by showing he was a man of vision capable of leading the agenda which Kennedy had presented and sold to the nation. Johnson would resurrect and pass the most comprehensive civil rights bill in the nations history.

**Robert Caro Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian on Lyndon Baines Johnson **

from Dian Rehm show
CARO You know, Johnson was a very complicated man. He was filled with ambition and he was filled with compassion, but the truth is, whenever the two of them collided, whenever he had to be one the Southern side, ambition was what won. But I wrote "when ambition and compassion were both pointing in the same direction, he was a force that was unlike anything else in American history."

REHM All right. But then, what do we know about why he decided to move so quickly once he became president, ( and target the 1964 civil rights bill)? 11:14:18

CARO Well, I'll tell you what he said to someone who doubted he was sincere. A speech writer of President Kennedy's before him, named Richard Goodwin, quite a brilliant man, Goodwin sort of asked the same question you did. And Johnson said, you know -- why are you making this a priority? And Johnson said, you know, when I was teaching those kids, I swore that if I ever had the opportunity to help them, I would.

President Johnson in 1963 still had never won a national election. He had never even competed in a national election as head of the ticket. Now he was President, Leader of the political machine which Kennedy had built; only the Kennedy's hated him. So five days after President Kennedy was shot; on Nov 27, 1963; as the entire country mourned, on national TV, in his first address to a joint session of congress; President Johnson ties the legacy of the dead president and the 1964 civil rights bill to his own campaign for President.

Johnson told the legislators, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long… Then he told his fellow southerners, "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."

Johnson then goes on to champion that 1964 civil rights bill and in July of 1964 as President he signed the landmark legislation. Tying himself and his election to the fallen president and securing one of the largest landslide victories in the nations history. With Barry Goldwater only winning 6 states. His home state of Arizona; and the 5 deep south states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Johnson went on after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to pass the 1965 Voter's Rights Act. Together these two landmark Acts ushered in dramatic changes the country.

I think a part of the reason is that for his career in the House and then the Senate, to be elected he needed first the votes of the people in the Texas Hill country and then the the entire state of Texas. One needed to be a racist to get elected. After he became Vice President and especially after becoming President, the voters he needed were from the entire US. The US was moving away from its inhumane treatment of it's black citizens and the South's barbaric Jim Crow laws.

As for the assistant and the dog, I have no idea if the story is true or not. But, it does illustrate a very good point. For a black American to travel from Texas to Washington D.C. in those days required substantial planning and could be extremely dangerous. The chances are very good that you would be exhausted when you arrive.

Modern liberalism in the United States

Modern liberalism (often simply referred to in the United States as liberalism) is the dominant version of liberalism in the United States. It combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy. According to Ian Adams, all major American parties are "liberal and always have been. Essentially they espouse classical liberalism, which is a form of democratized Whig constitutionalism plus the free market. The point of difference comes with the influence of social liberalism". [1]

Economically, modern liberalism opposes cuts to the social safety net and supports a role for government in reducing inequality, providing education, ensuring access to healthcare, regulating economic activity and protecting the natural environment. [2] This form of liberalism took shape in the 20th century United States as the franchise and other civil rights were extended to a larger class of citizens. Major examples include Theodore Roosevelt's Square Deal and New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.

In the first half of the 20th century, both major American parties had a conservative and a liberal wing. The conservative Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats formed the conservative coalition which dominated the Congress in the pre-Civil Rights era. As the Democrats under President Johnson began to support civil rights, the formerly Solid South, meaning solidly Democratic, became solidly Republican, except in districts with a large number of African-American voters. Since the 1960s, the Democratic Party has been considered liberal and the Republican Party has been considered conservative. As a group, liberals are referred to as the left and conservatives as the right. Starting in the 21st century, there has also been a sharp division between liberals who tend to live in denser, more heterogeneous communities and conservatives who tend to live in less dense, more homogeneous communities. [3] [4]


In the years leading up to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham had earned a national reputation as a tense, violent and racially segregated city, in which even tentative racial integration of any form was met with violent resistance. Martin Luther King described Birmingham as "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States". [8]

The city had no black police officers or firefighters. Given the state's disenfranchisement of most black people since the turn of the century, by making voter registration essentially impossible, few of the city's black residents were registered to vote. Bombings at black homes and institutions were a regular occurrence, [9] with at least 21 separate explosions recorded at black properties and churches in the eight years before 1963, although none of these explosions had resulted in fatalities. [10] These attacks earned the city the nickname "Bombingham". [11]

Birmingham Campaign Edit

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church was a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham, tensions in the city increased. The church was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth, for organizing and educating marchers. It was the location where students were organized and trained by James Bevel to participate in the 1963 Birmingham campaign's Children's Crusade after other marches had taken place.

On Thursday, May 2, more than 1,000 students, some reportedly as young as eight, opted to leave school and gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Demonstrators present were given instructions to march to downtown Birmingham and discuss with the mayor their concerns about racial segregation in the city, and to integrate buildings and businesses currently segregated. Although this march was met with fierce resistance and criticism, and 600 arrests were made on the first day alone, the Birmingham campaign and its Children's Crusade continued until May 5. The intention was to fill the jail with protesters. These demonstrations led to an agreement, on May 8, between the city's business leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to integrate public facilities, including schools, in the city within 90 days. (The first three schools in Birmingham to be integrated would do so on September 4.) [12]

These demonstrations and the concessions from city leaders to the majority of demonstrators' demands were met with fierce resistance by other whites in Birmingham. In the weeks following the September 4 integration of public schools, three additional bombs were detonated in Birmingham. [10] Other acts of violence followed the settlement, and several staunch Klansmen were known to have expressed frustration at what they saw as a lack of effective resistance to integration. [13]

As a known and popular rallying point for civil rights activists, the 16th Street Baptist Church was an obvious target.

In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the United Klans of America—Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Robert Edward Chambliss, [14] Bobby Frank Cherry, and (allegedly) Herman Frank Cash—planted a minimum of 15 sticks [15] of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, close to the basement. At approximately 10:22 a.m., an anonymous man phoned the 16th Street Baptist Church. The call was answered by the acting Sunday School secretary, a 14-year-old girl named Carolyn Maull. [16] The anonymous caller simply said the words, "Three minutes" [17] : 10 to Maull before terminating the call. Less than one minute later, the bomb exploded. Five children were present within the basement at the time of the explosion, [18] in a restroom close to the stairwell, changing into choir robes [19] in preparation for a sermon entitled "A Rock That Will Not Roll". [20] According to one survivor, the explosion shook the entire building and propelled the girls' bodies through the air "like rag dolls". [21]

The explosion blew a hole measuring seven feet (2.1 m) in diameter in the church's rear wall, and a crater five feet (1.5 m) wide and two feet (0.61 m) deep in the ladies' basement lounge, destroying the rear steps to the church and blowing a passing motorist out of his car. [22] Several other cars parked near the site of the blast were destroyed, and windows of properties located more than two blocks from the church were also damaged. All but one of the church's stained-glass windows were destroyed in the explosion. The sole stained-glass window largely undamaged in the explosion depicted Christ leading a group of young children. [10]

Hundreds of individuals, some of them lightly wounded, converged on the church to search the debris for survivors as police erected barricades around the church and several outraged men scuffled with police. An estimated 2,000 black people converged on the scene in the hours following the explosion. The church's pastor, the Reverend John Cross Jr., attempted to placate the crowd by loudly reciting the 23rd Psalm through a bullhorn. [23]

Four girls—Addie Mae Collins (age 14, born April 18, 1949), Carol Denise McNair (age 11, born November 17, 1951), Carole Rosanond Robertson (age 14, born April 24, 1949), and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (age 14, born April 30, 1949)—were killed in the attack. [24] The explosion was so intense that one of the girls' bodies was decapitated and so badly mutilated that her body could be identified only through her clothing and a ring. [25] Another victim was killed by a piece of mortar embedded in her skull. [26] The pastor of the church, the Reverend John Cross, recollected in 2001 that the girls' bodies were found "stacked on top of each other, clung together". [27] All four girls were pronounced dead on arrival at the Hillman Emergency Clinic. [28]

Between 14 and 22 additional people were injured in the explosion, [29] [30] one of whom was Addie Mae's younger sister, 12-year-old Sarah Collins. [31] She had 21 pieces of glass embedded in her face and was blinded in one eye. [32] In her later recollections of the bombing, Collins would recall that in the moments immediately before the explosion, she had watched her sister, Addie, tying her dress sash. [33] Another sister of Addie Mae Collins, 16-year-old Junie Collins, would later recall that shortly before the explosion, she had been sitting in the basement of the church reading the Bible and had observed Addie Mae Collins tying the dress sash of Carol Denise McNair before she returned upstairs to the ground floor of the church. [34]

Unrest and tensions Edit

Violence escalated in Birmingham in the hours following the bombing, with reports of groups of black and white youth throwing bricks and shouting insults at each other. [35] Police urged parents of black and white youths to keep their children indoors, as the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ordered an additional 300 state police to assist in quelling unrest. The Birmingham City Council convened an emergency meeting to propose safety measures for the city, although proposals for a curfew were rejected. Within 24 hours of the bombing, a minimum of five businesses and properties had been firebombed and numerous cars—most of which were driven by whites—had been stoned by rioting youths. [10]

In response to the church bombing, described by the Mayor of Birmingham, Albert Boutwell, as "just sickening", the Attorney General dispatched 25 FBI agents, including explosives experts, to Birmingham to conduct a thorough forensic investigation.

Although reports of the bombing and the loss of four children's lives were glorified by white supremacists, who in many instances chose to celebrate the loss as "four less niggers", [36] as news of the church bombing and the fact that four young girls had been killed in the explosion reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the civil rights struggle seriously enough. The day following the bombing, a young white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. addressed a meeting of businessmen, condemning the acquiescence of white people in Birmingham toward the oppression of blacks. In this speech, Morgan lamented: "Who did it [the bombing]? We all did it! The 'who' is every little individual who talks about the 'niggers' and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son . What's it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States." [37] A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, "For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths . in a sense, are on the hands of each of us." [38]

Two more black youths, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were shot to death in Birmingham within seven hours of the Sunday morning bombing. Robinson, aged 16, was shot in the back by a policeman as he fled down an alley, [36] after ignoring police orders to halt. The police were reportedly responding to black youths throwing rocks at cars driven by white people. Robinson died before reaching the hospital. Ware, aged 13, was shot in the cheek and chest with a revolver [12] in a residential suburb 15 miles (24 km) north of the city. A 16-year-old white youth named Larry Sims fired the gun (given to him by another youth named Michael Farley) at Ware, who was sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle ridden by his brother. Sims and Farley had been riding home from an anti-integration rally which had denounced the church bombing. [39] When he spotted Ware and his brother, Sims fired twice, reportedly with his eyes closed. (Sims and Farley were later convicted of second-degree manslaughter, [40] although the judge suspended their sentences and imposed two years' probation upon each youth. [39] [41] )

Some civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and an outspoken segregationist, for creating the climate that had led to the killings. One week before the bombing, Wallace granted an interview with The New York Times, in which he said he believed Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals" to stop racial integration. [42]

The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor Wallace offered an additional $5,000 on behalf of the state of Alabama. Although this donation was accepted, [43] : 274 Martin Luther King Jr. is known to have sent Wallace a telegram saying, "the blood of four little children . is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder." [10] [44]

Funerals Edit

Carole Rosamond Robertson was laid to rest in a private family funeral held on September 17, 1963. [45] Reportedly, Carole's mother, Alpha, had expressly requested that her daughter be buried separately from the other victims. She was distressed about a remark made by Martin Luther King, who had said that the mindset that enabled the murder of the four girls was the "apathy and complacency" of black people in Alabama. [43] : 272

The service for Carole Rosamond Robertson was held at St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church. In attendance were 1,600 people. At this service, the Reverend C. E. Thomas told the congregation: "The greatest tribute you can pay to Carole is to be calm, be lovely, be kind, be innocent." [46] Carole Robertson was buried in a blue casket at Shadow Lawn Cemetery. [47]

On September 18, the funeral of the three other girls killed in the bombing was held at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. Although no city officials attended this service, [48] an estimated 800 clergymen of all races were among the attendees. Also present was Martin Luther King Jr. In a speech conducted before the burials of the girls, King addressed an estimated 3,300 [49] mourners—including numerous white people—with a speech saying:

This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter . We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone. [50] [51]

As the girls' coffins were taken to their graves, King directed that those present remain solemn and forbade any singing, shouting or demonstrations. These instructions were relayed to the crowd present by a single youth with a bullhorn. [50]

Initially, investigators theorized that a bomb thrown from a passing car had caused the explosion at the 16th Street Baptist church. But by September 20, the FBI was able to confirm that the explosion had been caused by a device that was purposely planted beneath the steps to the church, [52] close to the women's lounge. A section of wire and remnants of red plastic were discovered here, which could have been part of a timing device. (The plastic remnants were later lost by investigators.) [17] : 63

Within days of the bombing, investigators began to focus their attention upon a KKK splinter group known as the "Cahaba Boys". The Cahaba Boys had formed earlier in 1963, as they felt that the KKK was becoming restrained and impotent in response to concessions granted to black people to end racial segregation. This group had previously been linked to several bomb attacks at black-owned businesses and the homes of black community leaders throughout the spring and summer of 1963. [17] : 57 Although the Cahaba Boys had fewer than 30 active members, [53] among them were Thomas Blanton Jr., Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry.

Investigators also gathered numerous witness statements attesting to a group of white men in a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet who had been seen near the church in the early hours of the morning of September 15. [54] These witness statements specifically indicated that a white man had exited the car and walked toward the steps of the church. (The physical description by witnesses of this person varied, and could have matched either Bobby Cherry or Robert Chambliss. [43] )

Chambliss was questioned by the FBI on September 26. [41] : 386 On September 29, he was indicted upon charges of illegally purchasing and transporting dynamite on September 4, 1963. He and two acquaintances, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were each convicted in state court upon a charge of illegally possessing and transporting dynamite on October 8. Each received a $100 fine (the equivalent of $850 as of 2021 [update] ) and a suspended 180-day jail sentence. [55] [56] At the time, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss or any of his fellow conspirators in relation to the bombing. [57]

FBI closure of case Edit

The FBI encountered difficulties in their initial investigation into the bombing. A later report stated: "By 1965, we had [four] serious suspects—namely Thomas Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry, all Klan members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillance was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the '60s." [58]

On May 13, 1965, local investigators and the FBI formally named Blanton, Cash, Chambliss, and Cherry as the perpetrators of the bombing, with Robert Chambliss the likely ringleader of the four. [59] This information was relayed to the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover [60] however, no prosecutions of the four suspects ensued. There had been a history of mistrust between local and federal investigators. [61] Later the same year, J. Edgar Hoover formally blocked any impending federal prosecutions against the suspects, and refused to disclose any evidence his agents had obtained with state or federal prosecutors. [62]

In 1968, the FBI formally closed their investigation into the bombing without filing charges against any of their named suspects. The files were sealed by order of J. Edgar Hoover.

The Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington in August, the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church, and the November assassination of John F. Kennedy—an ardent supporter of the civil rights cause who had proposed a Civil Rights Act of 1963 on national television [63] —increased worldwide awareness of and sympathy toward the civil rights cause in the United States.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, newly-inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson continued to press for passage of the civil rights bill sought by his predecessor.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into effect the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In attendance were major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. [63] This legislation prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin to ensure full, equal rights of African Americans before the law.

Officially, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing remained unsolved until after William Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama in January 1971. Baxley had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963, and later recollected: "I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what." [64]

Within one week of being sworn into office, Baxley had researched original police files into the bombing, discovering that the original police documents were "mostly worthless". [65] Baxley formally reopened the case in 1971. He was able to build trust with key witnesses, some of whom had been reluctant to testify in the first investigation. Other witnesses obtained identified Chambliss as the individual who had placed the bomb beneath the church. Baxley also gathered evidence proving Chambliss had purchased dynamite from a store in Jefferson County less than two weeks before the bomb was planted, [66] upon the pretext the dynamite was to be used to clear land the KKK had purchased near Highway 101. [67] : 497 This testimony of witnesses and evidence was used to formally construct a case against Robert Chambliss.

After Baxley requested access to the original FBI files on the case, he learned that evidence accumulated by the FBI against the named suspects between 1963 and 1965 had not been revealed to the local prosecutors in Birmingham. [54] Although he met with initial resistance from the FBI, [43] : 278 in 1976 Baxley was formally presented with some of the evidence which had been compiled by the FBI, after he publicly threatened to expose the Department of Justice for withholding evidence which could result in the prosecution of the perpetrators of the bombing. [68]

Prosecution of Robert Chambliss Edit

On November 14, 1977, Robert Chambliss, then aged 73, stood trial in Birmingham's Jefferson County Courthouse. Chambliss had been indicted by a grand jury on September 24, 1977, charged with four counts of murder, for each dead child in the 1963 church bombing. [69] But at a pre-trial hearing on October 18, [70] Judge Wallace Gibson ruled that the defendant would be tried upon one count of murder—that of Carol Denise McNair [70] —and that the remaining three counts of murder would remain, but that he would not be charged in relation to these three deaths.

Before his trial, Chambliss remained free upon a $200,000 bond raised by family and supporters and posted October 18. [70] [71]

Chambliss pleaded not guilty to the charges, insisting that although he had purchased a case of dynamite less than two weeks before the bombing, he had given the dynamite to a Klansman and FBI agent provocateur named Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. [72]

To discredit Chambliss's claims that Rowe had committed the bombing, prosecuting attorney William Baxley introduced two law enforcement officers to testify as to Chambliss's inconsistent claims of innocence. The first of these witnesses was Tom Cook, a retired Birmingham police officer, who testified on November 15 as to a conversation he had had with Chambliss in 1975. Cook testified that Chambliss had acknowledged his guilt regarding his 1963 arrest for possession of dynamite, but that he (Chambliss) was insistent he had given the dynamite to Rowe before the bombing. Following Cook's testimony, Baxley introduced police sergeant Ernie Cantrell. [73] He testified that Chambliss had visited his headquarters in 1976 and that he had attempted to affix the blame for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing upon an altogether different member of the KKK. Cantrell also stated that Chambliss had boasted of his knowledge of how to construct a "drip-method bomb" using a fishing float and a leaking bucket of water. (Upon cross-examination by defense attorney Art Hanes Jr., Cantrell conceded that Chambliss had emphatically denied bombing the church.)

One individual who went to the scene to help search for survivors, Charles Vann, later recollected that he had observed a solitary white man whom he recognized as Robert Edward Chambliss (a known member of the Ku Klux Klan) standing alone and motionless at a barricade. According to Vann's later testimony, Chambliss was standing "looking down toward the church, like a firebug watching his fire". [15]

One of the key witnesses to testify on behalf of the prosecution was the Reverend Elizabeth Cobbs, Chambliss's niece. Reverend Cobbs stated that her uncle had repeatedly informed her he had been engaged in what he referred to as a "one-man battle" against blacks since the 1940s. [74] Moreover, Cobbs testified on November 16 that, on the day before the bombing, Chambliss had told her that he had in his possession enough dynamite to "flatten half of Birmingham". Cobbs also testified that approximately one week after the bombing, she had observed Chambliss watching a news article relating to the four girls killed in the bombing. According to Cobbs, Chambliss had said: "It [the bomb] wasn't meant to hurt anybody . it didn't go off when it was supposed to." [19] Another witness to testify was William Jackson, who testified as to his joining the KKK in 1963 and becoming acquainted with Chambliss shortly thereafter. Jackson testified that Chambliss had expressed frustration that the Klan was "dragging its feet" on the issue of racial integration, [13] and said he was eager to form a splinter group more dedicated to resistance. [75]

In his closing argument before the jury on November 17, [76] Baxley acknowledged that Chambliss was not the sole perpetrator of the bombing. [77] He expressed regret that the state was unable to request the death penalty in this case, as the death penalty in effect in the state in 1963 had been repealed. The current state death penalty law applied only to crimes committed after its passage. Baxley noted that the day of the closing argument fell upon what would have been Carol Denise McNair's 26th birthday and that she would have likely been a mother by this date. He referred to testimony given by her father, Chris McNair, about the family's loss, and requested that the jury return a verdict of guilty. [78]

In his rebuttal closing argument, defense attorney Art Hanes Jr. attacked the evidence presented by the prosecution as being purely circumstantial, [79] adding that, despite the existence of similar circumstantial evidence, Chambliss had not been prosecuted in 1963 of the church bombing. Hanes noted conflicting testimony among several of the 12 witnesses called by the defense to testify as to Chambliss's whereabouts on the day of the bombing. A policeman and a neighbor had each testified that Chambliss was at the home of a man named Clarence Dill on that day.

Following the closing arguments, the jury retired to begin their deliberations, which lasted for over six hours and continued into the following day. On November 18, 1977, [79] they found Robert Chambliss guilty of the murder of Carol Denise McNair. [80] He was sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder. [81] At his sentencing, Chambliss stood before the judge and stated: "Judge, your honor, all I can say is God knows I have never killed anybody, never have bombed anything in my life . I didn't bomb that church." [82] [83]

On the same afternoon that Chambliss's guilty verdict was announced, prosecutor Baxley issued a subpoena to Thomas Blanton to appear in court about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Although Baxley knew he had insufficient evidence to charge Blanton at this stage, he intended the subpoena to frighten Blanton into confessing his involvement and negotiating a plea deal to turn state evidence against his co-conspirators. Blanton, however, hired a lawyer and refused to answer any questions. [67] : 574

Chambliss appealed his conviction, as provided under the law, saying that much of the evidence presented at his trial—including testimony relating to his activities within the KKK—was circumstantial that the 14-year delay between the crime and his trial violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial and the prosecution had deliberately used the delay to try to gain an advantage over Chambliss's defense attorneys. This appeal was dismissed on May 22, 1979. [84]

Robert Chambliss died in the Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985, at the age of 81. [85] In the years since his incarceration, Chambliss had been confined to a solitary cell to protect him from attacks by fellow inmates. He had repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, insisting Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was the actual perpetrator. [86] [87]

In 1995, ten years after Chambliss died, the FBI reopened their investigation into the church bombing. It was part of a coordinated effort between local, state and federal governments to review cold cases of the civil rights era in the hopes of prosecuting perpetrators. [88] They unsealed 9,000 pieces of evidence previously gathered by the FBI in the 1960s (many of these documents relating to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had not been made available to DA William Baxley in the 1970s). In May 2000, the FBI publicly announced their findings that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four members of the KKK splinter group known as the Cahaba Boys. The four individuals named in the FBI report were Blanton, Cash, Chambliss, and Cherry. [53] By the time of the announcement, Herman Cash had also died however, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were still alive. Both were arrested. [89]

On May 16, 2000, a grand jury in Alabama indicted Thomas Edwin Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry on eight counts each in relation to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Both named individuals were charged with four counts of first-degree murder, and four counts of universal malice. [90] The following day, both men surrendered to police. [91] : 162

The state prosecution had originally intended to try both defendants together however, the trial of Bobby Cherry was delayed due to the findings of a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. [92] It concluded that vascular dementia had impaired his mind, therefore making Cherry mentally incompetent to stand trial or assist in his own defense. [93]

On April 10, 2001, Judge James Garrett indefinitely postponed Cherry's trial, pending further medical analysis. [94] In January 2002, Judge Garrett ruled Cherry mentally competent to stand trial and set an initial trial date for April 29.

Thomas Edwin Blanton Edit

Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. was brought to trial in Birmingham, Alabama, before Judge James Garrett on April 24, 2001. [60] Blanton pleaded not guilty to the charges and chose not to testify on his behalf throughout the trial.

In his opening statement to the jurors, defense attorney John Robbins acknowledged his client's affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan and his views on racial segregation. But, he warned the jury: "Just because you don't like him, that doesn't make him responsible for the bombing." [27]

The prosecution called a total of seven witnesses to testify in their case against Blanton, including relatives of the victims, John Cross, the former pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church an FBI agent named William Fleming, and Mitchell Burns, a former Klansman who had become a paid FBI informant. Burns had secretly recorded several conversations with Blanton in which the latter (Blanton) had gloated when talking about the bombing, and had boasted the police would not catch him when he bombed another church. [95]

The most crucial piece of evidence presented at Blanton's trial was an audio recording secretly taped by the FBI in June 1964, in which Blanton was recorded discussing his involvement in the bombing with his wife, who can be heard accusing her husband of conducting an affair with a woman named Waylen Vaughn two nights before the bombing. Although sections of the recording—presented in evidence on April 27—are unintelligible, Blanton can twice be heard mentioning the phrase "plan a bomb" or "plan the bomb". Most crucially, Blanton can also be heard saying that he was not with Miss Vaughn but, two nights before the bombing, was at a meeting with other Klansmen on a bridge above the Cahaba River. [96] He said: "You've got to have a meeting to plan a bomb." [96]

In addition to calling attention to flaws in the prosecution's case, the defense exposed inconsistencies in the memories of some prosecution witnesses who had testified. Blanton's attorneys criticized the validity and quality of the 16 tape recordings introduced as evidence, [97] arguing that the prosecution had edited and spliced the sections of the audio recording that were secretly obtained within Blanton's kitchen, reducing the entirety of the tape by 26 minutes. He said that the sections introduced as evidence were of poor audio quality, resulting in the prosecution presenting text transcripts of questionable accuracy to the jury. About the recordings made as Blanton conversed with Burns, Robbins emphasized that Burns had earlier testified that Blanton had never expressly said that he had made or planted the bomb. [98] The defense portrayed the audiotapes introduced into evidence as the statements of "two rednecks driving around, drinking" and making false, ego-inflating claims to one another. [99]

The trial lasted for one week. Seven witnesses testified on behalf of the prosecution, and two for the defense. One of the defense witnesses was a retired chef named Eddie Mauldin, who was called to testify to discredit prosecution witnesses' statements that they had seen Blanton in the vicinity of the church before the bombing. Mauldin testified on April 30 that he had observed two men in a Rambler station wagon adorned with a Confederate flag repeatedly drive past the church immediately before the blast, and that, seconds after the bomb had exploded, the car had "burned rubber" as it drove away. (Thomas Blanton had owned a Chevrolet in 1963 [100] neither Chambliss, Cash nor Cherry had owned such a vehicle.)

Both counsels delivered their closing arguments before the jury on May 1. In his closing argument, prosecuting attorney and future U.S. Senator Doug Jones said that although the trial was conducted 38 years after the bombing, it was no less important, adding: "It's never too late for the truth to be told . It's never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes." Jones reviewed Blanton's extensive history with the Ku Klux Klan, before referring to the audio recordings presented earlier in the trial. Jones repeated the most damning statements Blanton had made in these recordings, before pointing at Blanton and stating: "That is a confession out of this man's mouth." [101]

Defense attorney John Robbins reminded the jury in his closing argument that his client was an admitted segregationist and a "loudmouth", but that was all that could be proven. He said this past was not the evidence upon which they should return their verdicts. Stressing that Blanton should not be judged for his beliefs, Robbins again vehemently criticized the validity and poor quality of the audio recordings presented, and the selectivity of the sections which had been introduced into evidence. Robbins also discredited the testimony of FBI agent William Fleming, who had earlier testified as to a government witness claiming he had seen Blanton in the vicinity of the church shortly before the bombing. [102]

The jury deliberated for two and a half hours before returning with a verdict finding Thomas Edwin Blanton guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. [103] When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Blanton said: "I guess the Lord will settle it on Judgment Day." [104]

Blanton was sentenced to life imprisonment. [105] [106] He was incarcerated at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama. [107] Blanton was confined in a one-man cell under tight security. He seldom spoke of his involvement in the bombing, shunned social activity and rarely received visitors. [108]

His first parole hearing was held on August 3, 2016. Relatives of the slain girls, prosecutor Doug Jones, Alabama Chief Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin, and Jefferson County district attorney Brandon Falls each spoke at the hearing to oppose Blanton's parole. Martin said: "The cold-blooded callousness of this hate crime has not diminished by the passage of time." The Board of Pardons and Paroles debated for less than 90 seconds before denying parole to Blanton. [109] [110]

Blanton died in prison from unspecified causes on June 26, 2020. [111]

Bobby Frank Cherry Edit

Bobby Frank Cherry was tried in Birmingham, Alabama, before Judge James Garrett, on May 6, 2002. [112] Cherry pleaded not guilty to the charges and did not testify on his own behalf during the trial.

In his opening statement for the prosecution, Don Cochran presented his case: that the evidence would show that Cherry had participated in a conspiracy to commit the bombing and conceal evidence linking him to the crime and that he had later gloated over the deaths of the victims. Cochran also added that although the evidence to be presented would not conclusively show that Cherry had personally planted or ignited the bomb, the combined evidence would illustrate that he had aided and abetted in the commission of the act. [91] : ch. 35

Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, protested his client's innocence, citing that much of the evidence presented was circumstantial. He also noted that Cherry had initially been linked to the bombing by the FBI via an informant who had claimed, fifteen months after the bombing, that she had seen Cherry place the bomb at the church shortly before the bombing. Johnson warned the jurors they would have to distinguish between evidence and proof.

Following the opening statements, the prosecution began presenting witnesses. Crucial testimony at Cherry's trial was delivered by his former wife, Willadean Brogdon, who had married Cherry in 1970. Brogdon testified on May 16 that Cherry had boasted to her that he had been the individual who planted the bomb beneath the steps to the church, then returned hours later to light the fuse to the dynamite. Brogdon also testified that Cherry had told her of his regret that children had died in the bombing, before adding his satisfaction that they would never reproduce. Although the credibility of Brogdon's testimony was called into dispute at the trial, forensic experts conceded that, although her account of the planting of the bombing differed from that which had been discussed in the previous perpetrators' trials, Brogdon's recollection of Cherry's account of the planting and subsequent lighting of the bomb could explain why no conclusive remnants of a timing device were discovered after the bombing. [113] (A fishing float attached to a section of wire, which may have been part of a timing device, was found 20 feet (6.1 m) from the explosion crater [79] following the bombing. One of several vehicles severely damaged in the explosion was found to have carried fishing tackle. [114] )

Barbara Ann Cross also testified for the prosecution. She is the daughter of the Reverend John Cross and was aged 13 in 1963. Cross had attended the same Sunday School class as the four victims on the day of the bombing and was slightly wounded in the attack. On May 15, [115] Cross testified that prior to the explosion, she and the four girls killed had each attended a Youth Day Sunday School lesson in which the theme taught was how to react to a physical injustice. Cross testified that each girl present had been taught to contemplate how Jesus would react to affliction or injustice, and they were asked to learn to consider, "What Would Jesus Do?" [91] Cross testified that she would usually have accompanied her friends into the basement lounge to change into robes for the forthcoming sermon, but she had been given an assignment. Shortly thereafter, she had heard "the most horrible noise", before being struck on the head by debris.

Throughout the trial, Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, repeatedly observed that many of the prosecution's witnesses were either circumstantial or "inherently unreliable". Many of the same audiotapes presented in Blanton's trial were also introduced into evidence in the trial of Bobby Cherry. A key point contested as to the validity of the audiotapes being introduced into evidence, outside the hearing of the jury, was the fact that Cherry had no grounds to contest the introduction of the tapes into evidence, as, under the Fourth Amendment, neither his home or property had been subject to discreet recording by the FBI. Don Cochran disputed this position, arguing that Alabama law provides for "conspiracies to conceal evidence" to be proven by both inference and circumstantial evidence. [91] In spite of a rebuttal argument by the defense, Judge Garrett ruled that some sections were too prejudicial, but also that portions of some audio recordings could be introduced as evidence. Through these rulings, Mitchell Burns was called to testify on behalf of the prosecution. His testimony was restricted to the areas of the recordings permitted into evidence.

On May 21, 2002, both prosecution and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments to the jury. In his closing argument for the prosecution, Don Cochran said the victims' "Youth Sunday [sermon] never happened . because it was destroyed by this defendant's hate." [116] Cochran outlined Cherry's extensive record of racial violence dating back to the 1950s, and noted that he had experience and training in constructing and installing bombs from his service as a Marine demolition expert. Cochran also reminded the jury of a secretly obtained FBI recording, which had earlier been introduced into evidence, in which Cherry had told his first wife, Jean, that he and other Klansmen had constructed the bomb within the premises of business the Friday before the bombing. He said that Cherry had signed an affidavit in the presence of the FBI on October 9, 1963, confirming that he, Chambliss, and Blanton were at these premises on this date. [117]

In the closing argument for the defense, attorney Mickey Johnson argued that Cherry had nothing to do with the bombing, and reminded the jurors that his client was not on trial for his beliefs, stating: "It seems like more time has been spent here throwing around the n-word than proving what happened in September 1963." [116] Johnson reiterated that there was no hard evidence linking Cherry to the bombing, but only evidence attesting to his racist beliefs dating from that era, adding that the family members who had testified against him were all estranged and therefore should be considered unreliable witnesses. Johnson urged the jury against convicting his client by association.

Following these closing arguments, the jury retired to consider their verdicts. These deliberations continued until the following day.

On the afternoon of May 22, after the jury had deliberated for almost seven hours, the forewoman announced they had reached their verdicts: Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. [118] Cherry remained stoic as the sentence was read aloud. Relatives of the four victims openly wept in relief. [119]

When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Cherry motioned to the prosecutors and stated: "This whole bunch lied through this thing [the trial]. I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I haven't done anything!" [61]

Bobby Frank Cherry died of cancer on November 18, 2004, at age 74, while incarcerated at the Kilby Correctional Facility. [118]

Following the convictions of Blanton and Cherry, Alabama's former Attorney General, William Baxley, expressed his frustration that he had never been informed of the existence of the FBI audio recordings before they were introduced in the 2001 and 2002 trials. Baxley acknowledged that typical juries in 1960s Alabama would have likely leaned in favor of both defendants, even if these recordings had been presented as evidence, [120] but said that he could have prosecuted Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry in 1977 if he had been granted access to these tapes. (A 1980 Justice Department report concluded that J. Edgar Hoover had blocked the prosecution of the four bombing suspects in 1965, [7] and he officially closed the FBI's investigation in 1968. [60] )

Although both Blanton and Cherry denied their involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, until his death in 1985, Robert Chambliss repeatedly insisted that the bombing had been committed by Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. Rowe had been encouraged to join the Klan by acquaintances in 1960. He became a paid FBI informant in 1961. [121] In this role, Rowe acted as an agent provocateur between 1961 [122] and 1965. Although informative to the FBI, Rowe actively participated in violence against both black and white civil rights activists. By Rowe's own later admission, while serving as an FBI informant, he had shot and killed an unidentified black man and had been an accessory to the murder of Viola Liuzzo. [123]

Investigative records show that Rowe had twice failed polygraph tests when questioned as to his possible involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and two separate, non-fatal explosions. [124] These polygraph results had convinced some FBI agents of Rowe's culpability in the bombing. Prosecutors at Chambliss's 1977 trial had initially intended to call Rowe as a witness however, DA William Baxley had chosen not to call Rowe as a witness after being informed of the results of these polygraph tests.

Although never formally named as one of the conspirators by the FBI, Rowe's record of deception on the polygraph tests leaves open the possibility that Chambliss's claims may have held a degree of truth. [124] Nonetheless, a 1979 investigation cleared Rowe of any involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. [125]

  • Following the bombing, the 16th Street Baptist Church remained closed for over eight months, as assessments and, later, repairs were conducted upon the property. Both the church and the bereaved families received an estimated $23,000 in cash donations from members of the public. [43] Gifts totalling over $186,000 were donated from around the world. The church reopened to members of the public on June 7, 1964, and continues to remain an active place of worship today, with an average weekly attendance of nearly 2,000 worshippers. The current pastor of the church is the Reverend Arthur Price Jr. [127]
  • The most seriously injured survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Sarah Jean Collins, remained hospitalized for more than two months [128] following the bombing. Collins' injuries were so extensive that medical personnel did initially fear she would lose the sight in both eyes, although, by October, they were able to inform Collins she would regain the sight in her left eye. [129] When asked her feelings towards the bombers on October 15, 1963, Collins first thanked those who had cared for her and sent messages of condolence, flowers and toys, then said: "As for the bomber, people are praying for him. We wonder what he would be thinking today if he had children . He will face God. We turn this problem over to God because no one else can solve Birmingham's problems. We leave it up to God to solve them." [129] , the young white lawyer who had delivered an impassioned speech on September 16, 1963, deploring the tolerance and complacency of much of the white population of Birmingham towards the suppression and intimidation of blacks—thereby contributing to the climate of hatred in the city—himself received death threats directed against him and his family in the days following his speech. Within three months, Morgan and his family were forced to flee Birmingham. [130][37] , a prominent figure within the Civil Rights Movement and organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was galvanized to create what became known as the Alabama Project for Voting Rights as a direct result of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Following the bombing, Bevel and his then-wife, Diane, relocated to Alabama, [131] where they tirelessly worked upon the Alabama Project for Voting Rights, which aimed to extend full voting rights for all eligible citizens of Alabama regardless of race. This initiative subsequently contributed to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, which themselves resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus prohibiting any form of racial discrimination within the process of voting.

I remembered the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate [Carol] Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation. [138]


Robert Francis Kennedy was born outside Boston in Brookline, Massachusetts, on November 20, 1925. He was the seventh of nine children to businessman/politician Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and philanthropist/socialite Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. [13] His parents were members of two prominent Irish American families in Boston. His eight siblings were Joseph Jr., John, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Jean, and Ted. All four of his grandparents were children of Irish immigrants. [14]

His father was a wealthy businessman and a leading Irish figure in the Democratic Party. After he stepped down as ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1940, Joe Sr. focused his attention on his oldest son, Joseph Jr., expecting that he would enter politics and be elected president. He also urged the younger children to examine and discuss current events in order to propel them to public service. [15] After Joseph Jr. was killed during World War II, the senior Kennedy's hopes fell on his second son, John, to become president. Joseph Sr. had the money and connections to play a central role in the family's political ambitions. [16]

Kennedy's older brother John was often bedridden by illness and, as a result, became a voracious reader. Although he made little effort to get to know his younger brother during his childhood, John took him on walks [17] and regaled him with the stories of heroes and adventures he had read. [18] One of their favorite authors was John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, which influenced both Robert and John. [17] John sometimes called Robert "Black Robert" due to his prudishness and disposition. [19]

Unlike his older brothers, Kennedy took to heart their mother Rose's agenda for everything to have "a purpose," which included visiting historic sites during family outings, visits to the church during morning walks, and games used to expand vocabulary and math skills. [20] He described his position in the family hierarchy by saying, "When you come from that far down, you have to struggle to survive." [21] As the boys were growing up, he tried frequently to get his older brothers' attention, but was seldom successful. [17] [18]

Kennedy spent his early years living in the New York City suburbs of Riverdale and Bronxville, where he attended school. He and his family spent summers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. [22] [23] [24] He later said that during childhood he was "going to different schools, always having to make new friends, and that I was very awkward . [a]nd I was pretty quiet most of the time. And I didn't mind being alone." [25] He even had to repeat third grade. [26] A teacher at Bronxville public school reflected that he was "a regular boy", adding, "It seemed hard for him to finish his work sometimes. But he was only ten after all." [21] [27] He developed an interest in American history, decorating his bedroom with pictures of U.S. presidents and filling his bookshelves with volumes on the American Civil War. He became an avid stamp collector and once received a handwritten letter from Franklin Roosevelt, also a philatelist. [21]

In March 1938, Kennedy sailed to London with his mother and four youngest siblings to join his father, who had begun serving as Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He attended the private Gibbs School for Boys for seventh grade. In April 1939, he gave his first public speech at the placing of a cornerstone for a youth club in England. According to embassy and newspaper reports, his statements were penciled in his own hand and delivered in a "calm and confident" manner. [28] Bobby returned to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

St. Paul's and Portsmouth Priory

In September 1939, Kennedy began eighth grade at St. Paul's School, an elite Protestant private preparatory school for boys in Concord, New Hampshire, [29] that his father favored. [30] Rose Kennedy was unhappy with the school's use of the Protestant Bible. After two months, she took advantage of her ambassador husband's absence from Boston and withdrew Kennedy from St. Paul's. She enrolled him in Portsmouth Priory School, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school for boys in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which held daily morning and evening prayers and Mass three times a week, with a High Mass on Sundays. [31] Kennedy attended Portsmouth for eighth through tenth grade. [32]

At Portsmouth Priory School, Kennedy was known as "Mrs. Kennedy's little boy Bobby" after he introduced his mother to classmates, who made fun of them. He was defensive of his mother, and on one occasion chased a student out of the dormitory after the boy had commented on her appearance. [33] He befriended Peter MacLellan and wrote to him, when his brother John was serving in the U.S. Navy, that he would be visiting his brother "because he might be killed any minute". [34] Kennedy blamed himself when his grades failed to improve. In letters to her son, Rose urged him to read more and to strengthen his vocabulary. [35] Rose also expressed disappointment and wrote that she did not expect him to let her down. [36] He began developing in other ways, and his brother John noticed his increased physical strength, predicting that the younger Kennedy "would be bouncing me around plenty in two more years". [35] Monks at Portsmouth Priory School regarded him as a moody and indifferent student. Father Damian Kearney, who was two classes behind Kennedy, reflected that he "didn't look happy" and that he did not "smile much". According to Kearney's review of school records, Kennedy was a "poor-to-mediocre student, except for history". [33]

Milton Academy

In September 1942, Kennedy transferred to his third boarding school, Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, for 11th and 12th grades. [37] His father wanted him to transfer to Milton, believing it would better prepare him for Harvard. [37] At Milton, he met and became friends with David Hackett. He invited Hackett to join him for Sunday Mass. Hackett started accompanying him, and was impressed when Kennedy took it upon himself to fill in for a missing altar boy one Sunday. [17] Hackett admired Kennedy's determination to bypass his shortcomings, and remembered him redoubling his efforts whenever something did not come easy to him, which included athletics, studies, success with girls, and popularity. [36] Hackett remembered the two of them as "misfits", a commonality that drew him to Kennedy, along with an unwillingness to conform to how others acted even if doing so meant not being accepted. Kennedy's grades improved. [17]

One of his first relationships was with a girl named Piedy Bailey. The pair was photographed together when he walked her home after chapel on a Sunday night. Bailey was fond of him and remembered him as being "very appealing". She recalled him being funny, "separate, larky outside the cliques private all the time". Soon after he transferred to Milton, he pressed his father to allow him to enlist, as he wanted to catch up to his brothers who were both serving in the military. [17] Kennedy had arrived at Milton unfamiliar with his peers and made little attempt to know the names of his classmates he called most of the other boys "fella" instead. For this, he was nicknamed "Fella". Most of the school's students had come in eighth or ninth grade and cliques had already been formed. Despite this, his schoolmates would later say the school had no prejudice. He had an early sense of virtue he disliked dirty jokes and bullying, once stepping in when an upperclassman tried bothering a younger student. [17] The headmaster at Milton would later summarize that he was a "very intelligent boy, quiet and shy, but not outstanding, and he left no special mark on Milton". [21]

Relationship with parents

In Kennedy's younger years, his father dubbed him the "runt" of the family and wrote him off. Close family friend Lem Billings once remarked to Joe Sr. that he was "the most generous little boy", and Joe Sr. replied that he did not know where his son "got that". Billings commented that the only similarity between Robert and Joe Sr. was their eye color. [33] As Kennedy grew, his father worried that he was soft on others, conflicting with his ideology. In response, Kennedy developed a tough persona that masked his gentle personality, attempting to appease his father. [38] Biographer Judie Mills wrote that Joe Sr.'s lack of interest in Robert was evident by the length of time it took for him to decide to transfer him to Milton Academy. Both Joe Jr. and John attended the exclusive Protestant prep school Choate from their first year, while Robert was already a junior by the time he was enrolled at Milton. Despite his father's disdain, Kennedy continued to seek his approval, requesting that Joe Sr. write him a letter about his opinions on different political events and World War II. [36]

As a child, Kennedy also strove to meet his mother's expectations to become the most dutiful, religious, affectionate, and obedient of the Kennedy children, but the father and son grew distant. [18] Rose found his gentle personality endearing, though this was noted as having made him "invisible to his father". [36] She influenced him heavily and, like her, he became a devout Catholic, throughout his lifetime practicing his religion more seriously than the other boys in the family. [39] He impressed his parents as a child by taking on a newspaper route, seeking their approval and wishing to distinguish himself. However, he had the family chauffeur driving him in a Rolls-Royce so that he could make his deliveries. His mother discovered this and the deliveries ceased. [38]

Joe Sr. was satisfied with Kennedy as an adult, believing him to have become "hard as nails", more like him than any of the other children, while his mother believed he exemplified all she had wanted in a child. Mills wrote, "His parents' conflicting views would be echoed in the opinions of millions of people throughout Bobby's life. Robert Kennedy was a ruthless opportunist who would stop at nothing to attain his ambitions. Robert Kennedy was America's most compassionate public figure, the only person who could save a divided country." [38]

Six weeks before his 18th birthday in 1943, Kennedy enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve as a seaman apprentice. [40] He was released from active duty in March 1944, when he left Milton Academy early to report to the V-12 Navy College Training Program at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His V-12 training began at Harvard (March–November 1944) before he was relocated to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (November 1944 – June 1945). [41] He returned to Harvard once again in June 1945 completing his post-training requirements in January 1946. [42] At Bates he received a specialized V-12-degree along with 15 others, [43] and during its Winter Carnival built a snow replica of a Navy boat. [44] [45] While in Maine, he wrote a letter to David Hackett in which he expressed feelings of inadequacy and frustration at being isolated from the action. He talked of filling his free time by taking classes with other sailors and remarked that "things are the same as usual up here, and me being my usual moody self I get very sad at times." He added, "If I don't get the hell out of here soon I'll die." In addition to Hackett, who was serving as a paratrooper, more of his Parker Hall dorm mates went overseas and left him behind. With others entering combat before him, Kennedy said this made him "feel more and more like a Draft Dodger [sic] or something". He was also frustrated with the apparent desire to shirk military responsibility by some of the other V-12 students. [46]

Kennedy's brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. died in August 1944, [47] when his bomber exploded during a volunteer mission known as Operation Aphrodite. Robert was most affected by his father's reaction to his eldest son's passing. He appeared completely heartbroken and his peer Fred Garfield commented that Kennedy developed depression and questioned his faith for a short time. After his brother's death, Robert gained more attention, moving higher up the family patriarchy. [46] On December 15, 1945, the U.S. Navy commissioned the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and shortly thereafter granted Kennedy's request to be released from naval-officer training to serve aboard Kennedy starting on February 1, 1946, as a seaman apprentice on the ship's shakedown cruise in the Caribbean. [42] [48] On May 30, 1946, he received his honorable discharge from the Navy. [49] For his service in the Navy, Kennedy was eligible for the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

In September 1946, Kennedy entered Harvard as a junior, having received credit for his time in the V-12 program. [50] He worked hard to make the varsity football team as an end he was a starter and scored a touchdown in the first game of his senior year before breaking his leg in practice. [50] He earned his varsity letter when his coach sent him in wearing a cast during the last minutes of a game against Yale. [51] His father spoke positively of him when he served as a blocking back and sometime receiver for the faster Dave Hackett. Joseph Sr. attended some of Kennedy's practices and saw his son catch a touchdown pass in an early-season rout of Western Maryland. His teammates admired his physical courage. He was five feet ten and 155 pounds, which made him too small for college football. Despite this, he was a fearless hitter and once tackled a 230-pound fullback head-on. Wally Flynn, another player, looked up in the huddle after one play to see him crying after he broke his leg. He disregarded the injury and kept playing. [52] Kennedy earned two varsity letters over the course of the 1946 and 1947 seasons. [53]

Throughout 1946, Kennedy became active in his brother John's campaign for the U.S. Representative seat that was vacated by James Curley he joined the campaign full-time after his naval discharge. Biographer Schlesinger wrote that the election served as an entry into politics for both Robert and John. [54] Robert graduated from Harvard in 1948 with a bachelor's degree in political science. [55]

Upon graduating, he sailed immediately on the RMS Queen Mary with a college friend for a six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East, accredited as a correspondent for the Boston Post, filing six stories. [56] Four of these stories, submitted from Palestine shortly before the end of the British Mandate, provided a first-hand view of the tensions in the land. [56] He was critical of British policy on Palestine and praised the Jewish people he met there calling them "hardy and tough". He held out some hope after seeing Arabs and Jews working side by side but, in the end, feared that the hatred between the groups was too strong and would lead to a war. [57]

In September 1948, he enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. [58] Kennedy adapted to this new environment, being elected president of the Student Legal Forum, where he successfully produced outside speakers including James M. Landis, William O. Douglas, Arthur Krock, and Joseph McCarthy and his family members Joe Sr. and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's paper on Yalta, written during his senior year, is deposited in the Law Library's Treasure Trove. [59]

On June 17, 1950, Kennedy married Ethel Skakel at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. [60] He graduated from law school in June 1951 and flew with Ethel to Greenwich to stay in his father-in-law's guest house. The couple's first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951. [61]

During this time, his brother John tried to keep Joe Sr. "at arm's length". The brothers rarely interacted until Kenny O'Donnell contacted Robert to repair the relationship between John and their father during John's Senate campaign. As a result of this, Joe Sr. came to view Robert favorably as reliable and "willing to sacrifice himself" for the family. [62]

In September 1951, he went to San Francisco as a correspondent for the Boston Post to cover the convention that concluded the Treaty of Peace with Japan. [63] In October 1951, he embarked on a seven-week Asian trip with his brother John (then a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts' 11th district) and their sister Patricia to Israel, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Japan. [64] Because of their age gap, the two brothers had previously seen little of each other—this 25,000-mile (40,000 km) trip came at their father's behest [62] and was the first extended time they had spent together, serving to deepen their relationship. On this trip, the brothers met Liaquat Ali Khan just before his assassination, and India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. [65]

JFK Senate campaign and Joseph McCarthy (1952–1955)

In November 1951, Kennedy moved with his wife and daughter to a townhouse in the Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and started work as a lawyer in the Internal Security Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He prosecuted a series of graft and income tax evasion cases. [66] [67] In February 1952, Kennedy was transferred to Brooklyn, and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York to help prepare fraud cases against former officials of the Truman administration. [68] [69] On June 6, 1952, he resigned to manage his brother John's U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts. [70] JFK's victory was of great importance to the Kennedys, elevating him to national prominence and turning him into a serious potential presidential candidate. John's victory was also equally important to Robert, who felt he had succeeded in eliminating his father's negative perceptions of him. [71]

In December 1952, at his father's behest, Kennedy was appointed by family friend Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy as assistant counsel of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. [72] [73] Kennedy disapproved of McCarthy's aggressive methods of garnering intelligence on suspected communists. [74] This was a highly visible job for him. He resigned in July 1953, but "retained a fondness for McCarthy". [75] The period of July 1953 to January 1954 saw him at "a professional and personal nadir", feeling that he was adrift while trying to prove himself to his family. [76] In 1954, Kenneth O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien urged Kennedy to consider running for Massachusetts Attorney General, but he declined. [77]

After a period as an assistant to his father on the Hoover Commission, Kennedy rejoined the Senate committee staff as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in February 1954. [78] That month, McCarthy's chief counsel Roy Cohn subpoenaed Annie Lee Moss, accusing her of membership in the Communist Party. Kennedy revealed that Cohn had called the wrong Annie Lee Moss and he requested the file on Moss from the FBI. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had been forewarned by Cohn and denied him access, calling RFK "an arrogant whippersnapper". [79] When Democrats gained a Senate majority in January 1955, Kennedy became chief counsel and was a background figure in the televised Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954 into McCarthy's conduct. [80] The Moss incident turned Cohn into an enemy, which led to Kennedy assisting Democratic senators in ridiculing Cohn during the hearings. The animosity grew to the point where Cohn had to be restrained after asking RFK if he wanted to fight him. [79] For his work on the McCarthy committee, Kennedy was included in a list of Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954, created by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. His father had arranged the nomination, his first national award. [81] In 1955 Kennedy was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. [82]

Stevenson aide and focus on organized labor (1956–1960)

In 1956, Kennedy moved his growing family outside Washington to a house called Hickory Hill, which he purchased from his brother John. This enormous 13-bedroom, 13-bath home was situated on 6 acres (2.4 ha) in McLean, Virginia. Kennedy went on to work as an aide to Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential election which helped him learn how national campaigns worked, in preparation for a future run by his brother, Jack. [83] Unimpressed with Stevenson, he reportedly voted for incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower. [84] Kennedy was also a delegate at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, having replaced Tip O'Neil at the request of his brother John, joining in what was ultimately an unsuccessful effort to help JFK get the vice-presidential nomination. [85] Shortly after this, following instructions by his father, Kennedy tried making amends with J. Edgar Hoover. [86] There seemed to be some improvement in their interactions, which came to be seen as "elemental political necessity" by Kennedy. This later changed after Kennedy was appointed attorney general, where Hoover saw him as an "unprecedented threat". [87]

From 1957 to 1959, he made a name for himself while serving as the chief counsel to the Senate's McClellan Committee under chairman John L. McClellan. Kennedy was given authority over testimony scheduling, areas of investigation, and witness questioning by McClellan, a move that was made by the chairman to limit attention to himself and allow outrage by organized labor to be directed toward Kennedy. [88] In a famous scene, Kennedy squared off with Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa during the antagonistic argument that marked Hoffa's testimony. [89] During the hearings, Kennedy received criticism from liberal critics and other commentators both for his outburst of impassioned anger and doubts about the innocence of those who invoked the Fifth Amendment. [90] Senators Barry Goldwater and Karl Mundt wrote to each other and complained about "the Kennedy boys" having hijacked the McClellan Committee by their focus on Hoffa and the Teamsters. They believed Kennedy covered for Walter Reuther and the United Automobile Workers, a union which typically would back Democratic office seekers. Amidst the allegations, Kennedy wrote in his journal that the two senators had "no guts" as they never addressed him directly, only through the press. [91] He left the committee in late 1959 in order to run his brother's presidential campaign.

JFK presidential campaign (1960)

In 1960 Kennedy published The Enemy Within, a book which described the corrupt practices within the Teamsters and other unions that he had helped investigate. John Seigenthaler assisted Kennedy. [92] Kennedy went to work on the presidential campaign of his brother, John. [93] In contrast to his role in his brother's previous campaign eight years prior, Kennedy gave stump speeches throughout the primary season, gaining confidence as time went on. [94] His strategy "to win at any cost" led him to call on Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. to attack Hubert Humphrey as a draft dodger Roosevelt eventually did make the statement that Humphrey avoided service. [95]

Concerned that John Kennedy was going to receive the Democratic Party's nomination, some supporters of Lyndon Johnson, who was also running for the nomination, revealed to the press that JFK had Addison's disease, saying that he required life-sustaining cortisone treatments. Though in fact a diagnosis had been made, Kennedy tried to protect his brother by denying the allegation, saying that JFK had never had "an ailment described classically as Addison's disease". [96] After securing the nomination, John Kennedy nonetheless decided to offer Lyndon Johnson the vice presidency. This did not sit well with some Kennedy supporters, and Robert tried unsuccessfully to convince Johnson to turn down the offer, leading him to view Robert with contempt afterward. [97] RFK had already disliked Johnson prior to the presidential campaign, seeing him as a threat to his brother's ambitions. [98] RFK wanted his brother to choose labor leader Walter Reuther. [99] Despite Kennedy's attempts, Johnson became his brother's running mate. [100]

Kennedy worked toward downplaying his brother's Catholic faith during the primary but took a more aggressive and supportive stance during the general election. These concerns were mostly calmed after JFK delivered a speech in September in Houston where he said that he was in favor of the separation of church and state. [101] The following month, Kennedy was involved in securing the release of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. from a jail in Atlanta. Kennedy spoke with Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver and later Judge Oscar Mitchell, after the judge had sentenced King for violating his probation when he protested at a whites-only snack bar. [102]

After winning the 1960 presidential election, President-elect John F. Kennedy appointed his younger brother attorney general. The choice was controversial, with publications including The New York Times and The New Republic calling him inexperienced and unqualified. [103] He had no experience in any state or federal court, [104] causing the president to joke, "I can't see that it's wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law." [105] However, Kennedy was hardly a novice as a lawyer, having gained significant experience conducting investigations and questioning witnesses as a Justice Department attorney and Senate committee counsel and staff director. [106]

According to Bobby Baker, the Senate majority secretary and a protégé of Lyndon Johnson, President-elect Kennedy did not want to name his brother attorney general. However, their father overruled the president-elect. At the behest of Johnson, Baker persuaded the influential Southern senator Richard Russell to allow a voice vote to confirm the president's brother in January 1961, as Kennedy "would have been lucky to get 40 votes" on a roll-call vote. [107]

The deputy and assistant attorneys general chosen by Kennedy included Byron White and Nicholas Katzenbach. [104] Kennedy also played a major role in helping his brother form his cabinet. John Kennedy wanted to name Senator J. William Fulbright, whom he knew and liked, as his Secretary of State. [108] Fulbright was generally regarded as the Senate's resident foreign policy expert, but he was also a supporter of segregation and white supremacy in the South. Robert Kennedy persuaded his brother that having Fulbright as Secretary of State would cost the Democrats Afro-American votes, leading to Dean Rusk being nominated instead after John Kennedy decided that his next choice, McGeorge Bundy, was too young to serve as Secretary of State. [109] Kennedy was also present at the job interview when the CEO of the Ford Motor Company, Robert McNamara, was interviewed by John Kennedy about becoming Defense Secretary. [110] McNamara's self-confidence and his belief that he could via his "Systems Analysis" style of management "scientifically" solve any problem impressed the Kennedy brothers, though John was rattled for a moment when McNamara asked if his bestselling book Profiles in Courage was written by a ghost-writer. [111]

Author James W. Hilty concludes that Kennedy "played an unusual combination of roles—campaign director, attorney general, executive overseer, controller of patronage, chief adviser, and brother protector" and that nobody before him had had such power. [112] His tenure as attorney general was easily the period of greatest power for the office—no previous United States attorney general had enjoyed such clear influence on all areas of policy during an administration. [113] To a great extent, President Kennedy sought the advice and counsel of his younger brother, with Robert being the president's closest political adviser. He was relied upon as both the president's primary source of administrative information and as a general counsel with whom trust was implicit. He exercised widespread authority over every cabinet department, leading the Associated Press to dub him "Bobby—Washington's No. 2-man". [113]

The president once remarked about his brother, "If I want something done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General. He is very much the doer in this administration, and has an organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed." [114]


As one of the president's closest White House advisers, Kennedy played a crucial role in the events surrounding the Berlin Crisis of 1961. [115] Operating mainly through a private, backchannel connection to Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov, he relayed important diplomatic communications between the American and Soviet governments. [116] Most significantly, this connection helped the U.S. set up the Vienna Summit in June 1961, and later to defuse the tank standoff with the Soviets at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in October. [117] Kennedy's visit with his wife to West Berlin in February 1962 demonstrated U.S. support for the city and helped repair the strained relationship between the administration and its special envoy in Berlin, Lucius D. Clay. [118]

Organized crime and the Teamsters

As attorney general, Kennedy pursued a relentless crusade against organized crime and the Mafia, sometimes disagreeing on strategy with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800 percent during his term. [119] Kennedy worked to shift Hoover's focus away from communism, which Hoover saw as a more serious threat, to organized crime. According to James Neff, Kennedy's success in this endeavor was due to his brother's position, giving the attorney general leverage over Hoover. [120] Biographer Richard Hack concluded that Hoover's dislike for Kennedy came from his being unable to control him. [121]

He was relentless in his pursuit of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, due to Hoffa's known corruption in financial and electoral matters, both personally and organizationally, [122] creating a so-called "Get Hoffa" squad of prosecutors and investigators. [123] The enmity between the two men was intense, with accusations of a personal vendetta—what Hoffa called a "blood feud"—exchanged between them. [124] On July 7, 1961, after Hoffa was reelected to the Teamsters presidency, RFK told reporters the government's case against Hoffa had not been changed by what he called "a small group of teamsters" supporting him. [125] The following year, it was leaked that Hoffa had claimed to a Teamster local that Kennedy had been "bodily" removed from his office, the statement being confirmed by a Teamster press agent and Hoffa saying Kennedy had only been ejected. [126] On March 4, 1964, Hoffa was convicted in Chattanooga, Tennessee, of attempted bribery of a grand juror during his 1962 conspiracy trial in Nashville, Tennessee, and sentenced to eight years in prison and a $10,000 fine. [127] [128] After learning of Hoffa's conviction by telephone, Kennedy issued congratulatory messages to the three prosecutors. [129] While on bail during his appeal, Hoffa was convicted in a second trial held in Chicago, on July 26, 1964, on one count of conspiracy and three counts of mail and wire fraud for improper use of the Teamsters' pension fund, and sentenced to five years in prison. [127] [130] Hoffa spent the next three years unsuccessfully appealing his 1964 convictions, and began serving his aggregate prison sentence of 13 years (eight years for bribery, five years for fraud) [131] on March 7, 1967, at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. [132]

Civil rights

Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School:

Our position is quite clear. We are upholding the law. The federal government would not be running the schools in Prince Edward County any more than it is running the University of Georgia or the schools in my home state of Massachusetts. In this case, in all cases, I say to you today that if the orders of the court are circumvented, the Department of Justice will act. We will not stand by or be aloof—we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. [133]

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover viewed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as an upstart troublemaker, [134] calling him an "enemy of the state". [135] In February 1962 [136] Hoover presented Kennedy with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists. [136] Concerned about the allegations, the FBI deployed agents to monitor King in the following months. [136] Kennedy warned King to discontinue the suspected associations. In response, King agreed to ask suspected Communist Jack O'Dell to resign from the SCLC, but refused to heed to the request to ask Stanley Levison, whom he regarded as a trusted advisor, to resign. [137] In October 1963, [137] Kennedy issued a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization. [9] Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so", [138] Hoover extended the clearance so that his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy. [139] The wiretapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968, days before Kennedy's death. [140]

Kennedy remained committed to civil rights enforcement to such a degree that he commented in 1962 that it seemed to envelop almost every area of his public and private life, from prosecuting corrupt Southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Coretta Scott King concerning the imprisonment of her husband for demonstrations in Alabama. [141] During his tenure as attorney general, he undertook the most energetic and persistent desegregation of the administration that Capitol Hill had ever experienced. He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers, going so far as to criticize Vice President Johnson for his failure to desegregate his own office staff. However, relations between the Kennedys and civil rights activists could be tense, partly due to the administration's decision that a number of complaints which King filed with the Justice Department between 1961 and 1963 be handled "through negotiation between the city commission and Negro citizens." [137]

Although it has become commonplace to assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1963 a great many of the initiatives that occurred during his tenure were the result of the passion and determination of an emboldened Robert Kennedy, who, through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as attorney general. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it crime or internal security?" Kennedy replied, "Civil rights." [142] The president came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the attorney general's insistence that he made his famous June 1963 address to the nation on civil rights. [104]

Kennedy played a large role in the response to the Freedom Riders protests. He acted after the Anniston bus bombings to protect the Riders in continuing their journey, sending John Seigenthaler, his administrative assistant, to Alabama to attempt to secure the Riders' safety there. Despite a work rule which allowed a driver to decline an assignment which he regarded as a potentially unsafe one, he persuaded a manager of The Greyhound Corporation to obtain a coach operator who was willing to drive a special bus for the continuance of the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, on the circuitous journey to Jackson, Mississippi. [143]

Later, during the attack and burning by a white mob of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, at which Martin Luther King Jr. and some 1,500 sympathizers were in attendance, the attorney general telephoned King to ask for his assurance that they would not leave the building until the force of U.S. Marshals and National Guard he sent had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked him for dispatching the forces to break up the attack that might otherwise have ended his life. [104] [144] Kennedy then negotiated the safe passage of the Freedom Riders from the First Baptist Church to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested. [145] He offered to bail the Freedom Riders out of jail, but they refused, which upset him.

Kennedy's attempts to end the Freedom Rides early were tied to an upcoming summit with Nikita Khrushchev and Charles de Gaulle. He believed the continued international publicity of race riots would tarnish the president heading into international negotiations. [146] This attempt to curtail the Freedom Rides alienated many of the civil rights leaders who, at the time, perceived him as intolerant and narrow-minded. [147] In an attempt to better understand and improve race relations, Kennedy held a private meeting in New York City in May 1963 with a black delegation coordinated by prominent author James Baldwin.

In September 1962, Kennedy sent a force of U.S. marshals and deputized U.S. Border Patrol agents and federal prison guards to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order allowing the admittance of the first African-American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. [148] The attorney general had hoped that legal means, along with the escort of federal officers, would be enough to force Governor Ross Barnett to allow Meredith's admission. He also was very concerned there might be a "mini-civil war" between federal troops and armed protesters. [149] President Kennedy reluctantly sent federal troops after the situation on campus turned violent. [150]

Ensuing riots during the period of Meredith's admittance resulted in 300 injuries and two deaths, [151] yet Kennedy remained adamant that black students had the right to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. [ citation needed ] Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice and collaborated with presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws. Between December 1961 and December 1963, Kennedy also expanded the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division by 60 percent. [152]

U.S. Steel

At the direction of the president, Kennedy also used the power of federal agencies to influence U.S. Steel not to institute a price increase. [153] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had set prices of steel "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police." [154] Yale law professor Charles Reich wrote in The New Republic that the Justice Department had violated civil liberties by calling a federal grand jury to indict U.S. Steel so quickly, then disbanding it after the price increase did not occur. [154]

Death penalty issues

During the Kennedy administration, the federal government carried out its last pre-Furman federal execution (of Victor Feguer in Iowa, 1963), [155] and Kennedy, as attorney general, represented the government in this case. [156]

In 1967 Kennedy expressed his strong willingness to support a bill then under consideration for the abolition of the death penalty. [157]

As his brother's confidant, Kennedy oversaw the CIA's anti-Castro activities after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. He also helped develop the strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis to blockade Cuba instead of initiating a military strike that might have led to nuclear war. He had initially been among the more hawkish members of the administration on matters concerning Cuban insurrectionist aid. His initial strong support for covert actions in Cuba soon changed to a position of removal from further involvement once he became aware of the CIA's tendency to draw out initiatives, and provide itself with almost unchecked authority in matters of foreign covert operations. [ citation needed ]

Allegations that the Kennedys knew of plans by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro, or approved of such plans, have been debated by historians over the years. JFK's friend and associate, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for example, expressed the opinion that operatives linked to the CIA were among the most reckless individuals to have operated during the period—providing themselves with unscrutinized freedoms to threaten the lives of Castro and other members of the Cuban revolutionary government regardless of the legislative apparatus in Washington—freedoms that, unbeknownst to those at the White House attempting to prevent a nuclear war, placed the entire U.S.–Soviet relationship in perilous danger. [ citation needed ]

The "Family Jewels" documents, declassified by the CIA in 2007, suggest that before the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the attorney general personally authorized one such assassination attempt. [158] [159] However, ample evidence exists to the contrary, specifically that Kennedy was only informed of an earlier plot involving the CIA's use of Mafia bosses Santo Trafficante Jr. and John Roselli during a briefing on May 7, 1962, and in fact directed the CIA to halt any existing efforts directed at Castro's assassination. [160] Concurrently, Kennedy served as the president's personal representative in Operation Mongoose, the post-Bay of Pigs covert operations program established in November 1961 by the president. [161] Mongoose was meant to incite a revolution within Cuba that would result in the downfall of Castro, not Castro's assassination. [162] [163]

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy proved himself to be a gifted politician with an ability to obtain compromises, tempering aggressive positions of key figures in the hawk camp. The trust the President placed in him on matters of negotiation was such that his role in the crisis is today seen as having been of vital importance in securing a blockade, which averted a full military engagement between the United States and Soviet Russia. [164] His clandestine meetings with members of the Soviet Government continued to provide a key link to Nikita Khrushchev during even the darkest moments of the Crisis, in which the threat of nuclear strikes was considered a very present reality. [165] On the last night of the crisis, President Kennedy was so grateful for his brother's work in averting nuclear war that he summed it up by saying, "Thank God for Bobby." [166]


At a summit meeting with Japanese prime minister Hayato Ikeda in Washington D.C. in 1961, President Kennedy had promised to make a reciprocal visit to Japan in 1962, [167] but the decision to resume atmospheric nuclear testing forced him to postpone such a visit, and he sent Bobby in his stead. [167] Kennedy and his wife Ethel arrived in Tokyo in February 1962 at a very sensitive time in U.S.-Japan relations, shortly after the massive Anpo protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty had highlighted anti-American grievances. Kennedy won over a highly skeptical Japanese public and press with his cheerful, open demeanor, sincerity, and youthful energy. [167] Most famously, Kennedy scored a public relations coup during a nationally televised speech at Waseda University in Tokyo. When radical Marxist student activists from Zengakuren attempted to shout him down, he calmly invited one of them on stage and engaged the student in an impromptu debate. [167] Kennedy's calmness under fire and willingness to take the student's questions seriously won many admirers in Japan and praise from the Japanese media, both for himself and on his brother's behalf. [167]

Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

At the time that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, RFK was at home with aides from the Justice Department. J. Edgar Hoover called and told him his brother had been shot. [168] Hoover then hung up before he could ask any questions. Kennedy later said he thought Hoover had enjoyed telling him the news. [169] Kennedy then received a call from Tazewell Shepard, a naval aide to the president, who told him that his brother was dead. [168] Shortly after the call from Hoover, Kennedy phoned McGeorge Bundy at the White House, instructing him to change the locks on the president's files. He ordered the Secret Service to dismantle the Oval Office and cabinet room's secret taping systems. He scheduled a meeting with CIA director John McCone and asked if the CIA had any involvement in his brother's death. McCone denied it, with Kennedy later telling investigator Walter Sheridan that he asked the director "in a way that he couldn't lie to me, and they [the CIA] hadn't". [170]

An hour after the president was shot, Bobby Kennedy received a phone call from Vice President Johnson before Johnson boarded Air Force One. RFK remembered their conversation starting with Johnson demonstrating sympathy before the vice president stated his belief that he should be sworn in immediately RFK opposed the idea since he felt "it would be nice" for President Kennedy's body to return to Washington with the deceased president still being the incumbent. [171] Eventually, the two concluded that the best course of action would be for Johnson to take the oath of office before returning to Washington. [172] In his 1971 book We Band of Brothers, aide Edwin O. Guthman recounted Kennedy admitting to him an hour after receiving word of his brother's death that he thought he would be the one "they would get" as opposed to his brother. [173] In the days following the assassination, he wrote letters to his two eldest children, Kathleen and Joseph, saying that as the oldest Kennedy family members of their generation, they had a special responsibility to remember what their uncle had started and to love and serve their country. [174] [175] He was originally opposed to Jacqueline Kennedy's decision to have a closed casket, as he wanted the funeral to keep with tradition, but he changed his mind after seeing the cosmetic, waxen remains. [176]

Kennedy was asked by Democratic Party leaders to introduce a film about his late brother at the 1964 party convention. When he was introduced, the crowd, including party bosses, elected officials, and delegates, applauded thunderously and tearfully for a full 22 minutes before they would let him speak. [177] He was close to breaking down before he spoke about his brother's vision for both the party and the nation and recited a quote from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.2) that Jacqueline had given him:

When [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

The ten-month investigation by the Warren Commission of 1963–1964 concluded that the president had been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald had acted alone. On September 27, 1964, Kennedy issued a statement through his New York campaign office: "As I said in Poland last summer, I am convinced Oswald was solely responsible for what happened and that he did not have any outside help or assistance. He was a malcontent who could not get along here or in the Soviet Union." [178] He added, "I have not read the report, nor do I intend to. But I have been briefed on it and I am completely satisfied that the Commission investigated every lead and examined every piece of evidence. The Commission's inquiry was thorough and conscientious." [178] After a meeting with Kennedy in 1966, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "It is evident that he believes that [the Warren Commission's report] was a poor job and will not endorse it, but that he is unwilling to criticize it and thereby reopen the whole tragic business." [179] Jerry Bruno, an "advance man" for JFK who also worked on RFK's 1968 presidential campaign, would later state in 1993: "I talked to Robert Kennedy many times about the Warren Commission, and he never doubted their result." [180] In a 2013 interview with CBS journalist Charlie Rose, son Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stated that his father was "fairly convinced" that others besides Oswald were involved in his brother's assassination and that he privately believed the Commission's report was a "shoddy piece of craftsmanship". [181]

The killing was judged as having a profound impact on Kennedy. Beran assesses the assassination as having moved Kennedy away from reliance on the political system and to become more questioning. [182] Tye views Kennedy following the death of his brother as "more fatalistic, having seen how fast he could lose what he cherished the most." [183]

In the wake of the assassination of his brother and Lyndon Johnson's ascension to the presidency, with the office of vice president now vacant, Kennedy was viewed favorably as a potential candidate for the position in the 1964 presidential election. Several Kennedy partisans called for him to be drafted in tribute to his brother national polling showed that three of four Democrats were in favor of him as Johnson's running mate. Democratic organizers supported him as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary and 25,000 Democrats wrote in Kennedy's name in March 1964, only 3,700 fewer than the number of Democrats who wrote in Johnson's name as their pick for president. [168]

Kennedy discussed the vice presidency with Arthur Schlesinger. Schlesinger thought that he should develop his own political base first, and Kennedy observed that the job "was really based on waiting around for someone to die". In his first interview after the assassination Kennedy said he was not considering the vice presidency. During this time he said of the coalescing Johnson administration, "It's too early for me to even think about '64, because I don't know whether I want to have any part of these people. . If they don't fulfill and follow out my brother's program, I don't want to have anything to do with them." [184] However, in January 1964 Kennedy did begin low key inquiries as to the vice-presidential position and by the summer was developing plans to help Johnson in cities and in the Northeast based on the 1960 JFK campaign strategies. [185]

Despite the fanfare within the Democratic Party, President Johnson was not inclined to have Kennedy on his ticket. The two men disliked one another intensely, with feelings often described as "mutual contempt" that went back to their first meeting in 1953, and had only intensified during JFK's presidency. [186] [187] At the time, Johnson privately said about Kennedy that "I don't need that little runt to win" while Kennedy privately said about Johnson that he was "mean, bitter, vicious — an animal in many ways". [188] To block Kennedy, Johnson considered nominating his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as vice presidential candidate, but the Kennedy family vetoed his name. [189] Kenny O'Donnell, a Kennedy aide who stayed on to serve Johnson, told the president that if he wanted a Catholic vice president, the only candidate available was Kennedy. [189] Johnson instead chose Senator Hubert Humphrey to be his running mate. [168]

During a post-presidency interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Johnson claimed that Kennedy "acted like he was the custodian of the Kennedy dream" despite Johnson being seen as this after JFK was assassinated, arguing that he had "waited" his turn and Kennedy should have done the same. Johnson recalled a "tidal wave of letters and memos about how great a vice president Bobby would be" being swept upon him, but knowing that he could not "let it happen" as he viewed the possibility of having Kennedy on the ticket as ensuring that he would never know if he could be elected "on my own". [190] On July 27, 1964, Kennedy was summoned to the White House to be told by Johnson that he did not want him as his running mate, leading the former to say "I could have helped you". [191] Johnson wanted Kennedy to tell the media that he decided to withdraw his name, but he refused, saying the president could do that himself. [191] Johnson wanted a way to announce that he had refused Kennedy serving as his running mate without appearing to be motivated by malice towards a man he disliked and distrusted. [191] The Democratic powerbroker Clark Clifford suggested to Johnson a way to block Kennedy. At a meeting in the Oval Office that, unknown to him, was being recorded, Clifford said: "Why don't you reach a policy decision that, after careful consideration, you've decided that you're not going to select anyone from your cabinet?" [191] When Johnson replied "That's pretty thin, isn't it?", leading Clifford to answer, "Well, it is pretty thin, but it's a lot better than nothing". [191]

In July 1964, Johnson issued an official statement ruling out all of his current cabinet members as potential running mates, judging them to be "so valuable . in their current posts". In response to this statement, angry letters poured in directed towards both Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, expressing disappointment at Kennedy being dropped from the field of potential running mates. [190] Johnson, worried that delegates at the convention would draft Kennedy onto the ticket, ordered the FBI to monitor Kennedy's contacts and actions, and to make sure that he could not speak until after Hubert Humphrey was confirmed as his running mate. [168] After making his announcement, Johnson at an "off-the-record" meeting in the Oval Office with three journalists boasted about how he had gotten "that damned albatross off his neck" as he proceeded to mock what he called Kennedy's "funny" voice and mannerisms. [191] Though not published in the newspapers, Kennedy quickly learned of Johnson's performance and demanded an apology, only to have the president deny the story. [192] After hearing Johnson's denial, Kennedy wrote: "He tells so many lies that he convinces himself after a while he's telling the truth. He just doesn't recognize truth or falsehood". [193]

Johnson in a meeting with the Secretary of State Dean Rusk talked much about Kennedy. Both felt that Kennedy was "freakish ambitious" with Rusk saying: "Mr. President, I just can't wrap my mind around that kind of ambition. I don't know how to understand it". [194] Both Johnson and Rusk were afraid at the Democratic National Convention that Kennedy might use the nostalgia for his assassinated brother to "stampede" the delegates to nominate him, and were hoping that Kennedy might run for Senate in New York, though Rusk was also worried that a Senate run would serve as "a drag on your own position in New York state". [194] Furthermore, white Southerners tended to vote Democratic as a bloc at the time, and a poll in 1964 showed that 33% of Southerners would not vote Democratic if the civil rights supporter Kennedy were Johnson's running mate, which caused many Democrat leaders to oppose Kennedy serving as Vice President, lest it alienate one of the most solid and reliable blocs of Democratic voters. [188]

At the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy appeared on the stage to introduce a film honoring his late brother entitled A Thousand Days, causing the convention hall to explode with cheers for 22 minutes despite Kennedy's gestures indicating that he wanted the crowd to fall silent so he could began his speech. [195] Senator Henry Jackson advised Kennedy to "Let them get it out of their system" as he stood on the stage raising his hand to signal he wanted the crowd to stop cheering. [196] When the crowd finally stopped cheering, Kennedy gave his speech which ended with a quotation from Romeo and Juliet: "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine, That all the world shall be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun". [196] Johnson knew instantly that the reference to the "garish sun" that Kennedy quoted from Shakespeare was to him. [196]

1964 election

Nine months after his brother's assassination, Kennedy left the cabinet to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate representing New York, [197] announcing his candidacy on August 25, 1964, two days before the end of that year's Democratic National Convention. [198] He had considered the possibility of running for the seat since early spring, but also giving consideration for governor of Massachusetts or, as he put it, "go away", leaving politics altogether after the plane crash and injury of his brother Ted in June, two months earlier. [199] Positive reception in Europe convinced him to remain in politics. [200] Kennedy was lauded during trips to Germany and Poland, the denizens of the latter country's greetings to Kennedy being interpreted by Leaming as evaporating the agony he had sustained since his brother's passing. [201] Kennedy was given permission to run by the New York State Democratic Committee on September 1, amid mixed feelings in regards to his candidacy. [202] Despite their notoriously difficult relationship, Johnson gave considerable support to Kennedy's campaign. His opponent in the 1964 race was Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating, who attempted to portray Kennedy as an arrogant carpetbagger since he did not reside in the state. [203] [204] The New York Times editorialized, "there is nothing illegal about the possible nomination of Robert F. Kennedy of Massachusetts as Senator from New York, but there is plenty of cynical about it, . merely choosing the state as a convenient launching‐pad for the political ambitions of himself." [205] [206] The primary reason Kennedy chose not to run for the U.S. Senate from his native state of Massachusetts was because his younger brother Ted was running for re-election. [205] RFK charged Keating with having "not done much of anything constructive" despite his presence in Congress during a September 8 press conference. [207] Kennedy won the November election, helped in part by Johnson's huge victory margin in New York. [208]


Kennedy drew attention in Congress early on as the brother of President Kennedy, which set him apart from other senators. He drew more than fifty senators as spectators when he delivered a speech in the Senate on nuclear proliferation in June 1965. [209] However, he also saw a decline in his power, going from the president's most trusted advisor to one of a hundred senators, and his impatience with collaborative lawmaking showed. [210] Though fellow senator Fred R. Harris expected not to like Kennedy, the two became allies Harris even called them "each other's best friends in the Senate". [211] Kennedy's younger brother Ted was his senior there. Robert saw his brother as a guide on managing within the Senate, and the arrangement worked to deepen their relationship. [210] Senator Harris noted that Kennedy was intense about matters and issues which concerned him. [212] Kennedy gained a reputation in the Senate for being well prepared for debate, however his tendency to speak to other senators in a more "blunt" fashion caused him to be "unpopular . with many of his colleagues". [212]

While serving in the Senate, Kennedy advocated gun control. In May 1965 he co-sponsored S.1592, proposed by President Johnson and sponsored by Senator Thomas J. Dodd, that would put federal restrictions on mail-order gun sales. [213] Speaking in support of the bill, Kennedy said, "For too long we dealt with these deadly weapons as if they were harmless toys. Yet their very presence, the ease of their acquisition and the familiarity of their appearance have led to thousands of deaths each year. With the passage of this bill we will begin to meet our responsibilities. It would save hundreds of thousands of lives in this country and spare thousands of families . grief and heartache. . " [213] [214] In remarks during a May 1968 campaign stop in Roseburg, Oregon, Kennedy defended the bill as keeping firearms away from "people who have no business with guns or rifles". The bill forbade "mail order sale of guns to the very young, those with criminal records and the insane," according to The Oregonian's report. [215] [216] S.1592 and subsequent bills, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, paved the way for the eventual passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. [217]

Kennedy and his staff had employed a cautionary "amendments–only" strategy for his first year in the senate. In 1966 and 1967 they took more direct legislative action, but were met with increasing resistance from the Johnson administration. [218] Despite perceptions that the two were hostile in their respective offices to each other, U.S. News reported Kennedy's support of the Johnson administration's "Great Society" program through his voting record. Kennedy supported both major and minor parts of the program, and each year over 60% of his roll call votes were consistently in favor of Johnson's policies. [219]

On February 8, 1966, Kennedy urged the United States to pledge that it would not be the first country to use nuclear weapons against countries that did not have them noting that China had made the pledge and the Soviet Union indicated it was also willing to do so. [220]

In June 1966, he visited apartheid-era South Africa accompanied by his wife, Ethel, and a few aides. The tour was greeted with international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. He spoke out against the oppression of the native population, and was welcomed by the black population as though he were a visiting head of state. In an interview with Look magazine he said:

At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. "But suppose God is black", I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" There was no answer. Only silence. [221]

At the University of Cape Town he delivered the annual Day of Affirmation Address. A quote from this address appears on his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." [222]

On January 28, 1967, Kennedy began a ten-day stay in Europe, meeting Harold Wilson in London who advised him to tell President Johnson about his belief that the ongoing Vietnam conflict was wrong. Upon returning to the U.S. in early February, he was confronted by the press who asked him if his conversations abroad had negatively impacted American foreign relations. [223]

During his years as a senator, he helped to start a successful redevelopment project in poverty-stricken Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. [224] Schlesinger wrote that Kennedy had hoped Bedford-Stuyvesant would become an example of self-imposed growth for other impoverished neighborhoods. Kennedy had difficulty securing support from President Johnson, whose administration was charged by Kennedy as having opposed a "special impact" program meant to bring about the federal progress that he had supported. Robert B. Semple Jr. repeated similar sentiments in September 1967, writing the Johnson administration was preparing "a concentrated attack" on Robert F. Kennedy's proposal that Semple claimed would "build more and better low-cost housing in the slums through private enterprise." Kennedy confided to journalist Jack Newfield that while he tried collaborating with the administration through courting its members and compromising with the bill, "They didn't even try to work something out together. To them it's all just politics." [225]

He also visited the Mississippi Delta as a member of the Senate committee reviewing the effectiveness of "War on Poverty" programs, particularly that of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. [226] Marian Wright Edelman described Kennedy as "deeply moved and outraged" by the sight of the starving children living in the economically abysmal climate, changing her impression of him from "tough, arrogant, and politically driven." [227] Edelman noted further that the senator requested she call on Martin Luther King Jr. to bring the impoverished to Washington, D.C., to make them more visible, leading to the creation of the Poor People's Campaign. [228] Kennedy sought to remedy the problems of poverty through legislation to encourage private industry to locate in poverty-stricken areas, thus creating jobs for the unemployed, and stressed the importance of work over welfare. [229]

Kennedy worked on the Senate Labor Committee at the time of the workers' rights activism of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). [230] At the request of labor leader Walter Reuther, who had previously marched with and provided money to Chavez, Kennedy flew out to Delano, California, to investigate the situation. [231] Although little attention was paid to the first two committee hearings in March 1966 for legislation to include farm workers by an amendment of the National Labor Relations Act, Kennedy's attendance at the third hearing brought media coverage. [232] Biographer Thomas wrote that Kennedy was moved after seeing the conditions of the workers, who he deemed were being taken advantage of. Chavez stressed to Kennedy that migrant workers needed to be recognized as human beings. Kennedy later engaged in an exchange with Kern County sheriff Leroy Galyen where he criticized the sheriff's deputies for taking photographs of "people on picket lines." [233]

As a senator, he was popular among African Americans and other minorities including Native Americans and immigrant groups. He spoke forcefully in favor of what he called the "disaffected", [234] the impoverished, [235] and "the excluded", [236] thereby aligning himself with leaders of the civil rights struggle and social justice campaigners, leading the Democratic party in pursuit of a more aggressive agenda to eliminate perceived discrimination on all levels. He supported desegregation busing, integration of all public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and anti-poverty social programs to increase education, offer opportunities for employment, and provide health care for African Americans. Consistent with President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, he also placed increasing emphasis on human rights as a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.


The JFK administration had backed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the frame of the Cold War, but Kennedy was not known to be involved in discussions on the Vietnam War when he was his brother's attorney general. [237] [238] According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, before choosing to run for the Senate, Kennedy had sought an ambassadorship to South Vietnam. [239] Entering the Senate, Kennedy initially kept private his disagreements with President Johnson on the war. While Kennedy vigorously supported his brother's earlier efforts, he never publicly advocated commitment of ground troops. Though bothered by the beginning of the bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965, Kennedy did not wish to appear antipathetic to the president's agenda. [240] But by April, Kennedy was advocating a halt to the bombing to Johnson, who acknowledged that Kennedy played a part in influencing his choice to temporarily cease bombing the following month. [241] Kennedy cautioned Johnson against sending combat troops as early as 1965, but Johnson chose instead to follow the recommendation of the rest of his predecessor's still intact staff of advisers. In July, after Johnson made a large commitment of American ground forces to Vietnam, Kennedy made multiple calls for a settlement through negotiation. The next month, John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, wrote that Kennedy "indicat[ed] comprehension of the problems we face", in a letter to the senator. [242] In December 1965, Kennedy advised his friend, the Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, that he should counsel Johnson to declare a ceasefire in Vietnam, a bombing pause over North Vietnam, and to take up an offer by Algeria to serve as a "honest broker" in peace talks. [243] The left-wing Algerian government had friendly relations with North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front and had indicated in 1965-1966 that it was willing to serve as a conduit for peace talks, but most of Johnson's advisers were leery of the Algerian offer. [244]

On January 31, 1966, Kennedy in a speech on the Senate floor stated: "If we regard bombing as the answer in Vietnam, we are headed straight for disaster". [245] In February 1966, Kennedy released a peace plan that called for preserving South Vietnam while at the same time allowing the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong, to join a coalition government in Saigon. [245] When asked by reporters if he was speaking on behalf of Johnson, Kennedy replied: "I don't think anyone has ever suggested that I was speaking for the White House". [245] Kennedy's peace plan made front page news with The New York Times calling it a break with the president while the Chicago Tribunal labelled him in an editorial "Ho Chi Kennedy". [246] Vice President Humphrey on a visit to New Zealand stated that Kennedy's "peace recipe" included "a dose of arsenic" while the National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy quoted to the press Kennedy's remarks from 1963 saying he was against including Communists in coalition governments (though Kennedy's subject was Germany, not Vietnam). [246] Kennedy was displeased when he heard anti-war protesters chanting his name, saying "I'm not Wayne Morse". [246] To put aside reports of a rift with Johnson, Kennedy flew with Johnson on Air Force One on a trip to New York on February 23, 1966, and barely clapped his hands in approval when Johnson denied waging a war of conquest in Vietnam. [246] In an interview with the Today program, Kennedy conceded that his views on Vietnam were "a little confusing". [246]

In April 1966, Kennedy had a private meeting with Philip Heymann of the State Department's Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs to discuss efforts to secure the release of American prisoners of war in Vietnam. Kennedy wanted to press the Johnson administration to do more, but Heymann insisted that the administration believed the "consequences of sitting down with the Viet Cong" mattered more than the prisoners they were holding captive. [247] On June 29 of that year, Kennedy released a statement disavowing President Johnson's choice to bomb Haiphong, but he avoided criticizing either the war or the president's overall foreign policy, believing that it might harm Democratic candidates in the 1966 midterm elections. [248] In August, the International Herald Tribune described Kennedy's popularity as outpacing President Johnson's, crediting Kennedy's attempts to end the Vietnam conflict which the public increasingly desired. [249]

In the early part of 1967, Kennedy traveled to Europe, where he had discussions about Vietnam with leaders and diplomats. A story leaked to the State Department that Kennedy was talking about seeking peace while President Johnson was pursuing the war. Johnson became convinced that Kennedy was undermining his authority. He voiced this during a meeting with Kennedy, who reiterated the interest of the European leaders to pause the bombing while going forward with negotiations Johnson declined to do so. [250] On March 2, Kennedy outlined a three-point plan to end the war which included suspending the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, and the eventual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese soldiers from South Vietnam this plan was rejected by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who believed North Vietnam would never agree to it. [251] On May 15, Kennedy debated Governor of California Ronald Reagan about the war. [252] [253] On November 26, 1967, during an appearance on Face the Nation, Kennedy asserted that the Johnson administration had deviated from his brother's policies in Vietnam, his first time contrasting the two administrations' policies on the war. He added that the view that Americans were fighting to end communism in Vietnam was "immoral". [254] [255]

On February 8, 1968, Kennedy delivered an address in Chicago, where he critiqued Saigon "government corruption" and expressed his disagreement with the Johnson administration's stance that the war would determine the future of Asia. [256] On March 14, Kennedy met with defense secretary Clark Clifford at the Pentagon regarding the war. Clifford's notes indicate that Kennedy was offering not to enter the ongoing Democratic presidential primary if President Johnson would admit publicly to having been wrong in his war policy and appoint "a group of persons to conduct a study in depth of the issues and come up with a recommended course of action" [257] Johnson rejected the proposal. [258] On April 1, after President Johnson halted bombing of North Vietnam, RFK said the decision was a "step toward peace" and, though offering to collaborate with Johnson for national unity, opted to continue his presidential bid. [259] On May 1, while in Lafayette, Indiana, Kennedy said continued delays in beginning peace talks with North Vietnam meant both more lives lost and the postponing of the "domestic progress" hoped for by the US. [260] Later that month, Kennedy called the war "the gravest kind of error" in a speech in Corvallis, Oregon. [261] In an interview on June 4, hours before he was shot, Kennedy continued to advocate for a change in policy towards the war. [262]

Despite his criticism of the Vietnam War and the South Vietnam government, Kennedy also stated in his 1968 campaign brochure that he did not support either a simple withdrawal or a surrender in South Vietnam and favored instead a change in the course of action taken so it would bring an "honorable peace." [263]

In 1968 President Johnson prepared to run for re-election. In January, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent president, Kennedy stated that he would not seek the presidency. [264] After the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in early February 1968, he received a letter from writer Pete Hamill that said poor people kept pictures of President Kennedy on their walls and that Kennedy had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls." [265]

Kennedy traveled to Delano, California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez, who was on a 25-day hunger strike showing his commitment to nonviolence. [266] It was on this visit to California that Kennedy decided he would challenge Johnson for the presidency, telling his former Justice Department aides, Edwin Guthman and Peter Edelman, that his first step was to get lesser-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to drop out of the presidential race. [267]

The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy announced to several aides that he would attempt to persuade McCarthy to withdraw from the race to avoid splitting the antiwar vote, but Senator George McGovern urged Kennedy to wait until after that primary to announce his candidacy. [264] Johnson won a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, against McCarthy, but this close second-place result dramatically boosted McCarthy's standing in the race. [268]

After much speculation, and reports leaking out about his plans, [269] and seeing in McCarthy's success that Johnson's hold on the job was not as strong as originally thought, Kennedy declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate office building, the same room where his brother had declared his own candidacy eight years earlier. [270] He stated, "I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can." [271]

McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Kennedy as an opportunist. They believed that McCarthy had taken the most courageous stand by opposing the sitting president of his own party and that his surprising result in New Hampshire had earned him the mantle of being the anti-war candidate. Kennedy's announcement split the anti-war movement in two. [272] On March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a champion of the labor unions and a long supporter of civil rights, entered the race with the financial backing and critical endorsement of the party "establishment", including most members of Congress, mayors, governors, "the south", and several major labor unions. [273] With state registration deadlines long past, Humphrey joined the race too late to enter any primaries but had the support of the president. [274] [275] Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries.

Kennedy ran on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power, and social change. A crucial element of his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality. His policy objectives did not sit well with the business community, where he was viewed as something of a fiscal liability, opposed as they were to the tax increases necessary to fund social programs. At one of his university speeches (Indiana University Medical School), he was asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?" He replied to the medical students, about to enter lucrative careers, "From you." [104] [276]

It was this intense and frank mode of dialogue with which he was to continue to engage those whom he viewed as not being traditional allies of Democratic ideals or initiatives. In a speech at the University of Alabama, he argued, "I believe that any who seek high office this year must go before all Americans, not just those who agree with them, but also those who disagree, recognizing that it is not just our supporters, not just those who vote for us, but all Americans who we must lead in the difficult years ahead." [277] He aroused rabid animosity in some quarters, with J. Edgar Hoover's Deputy Clyde Tolson reported as saying, "I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch." [278]

Kennedy's presidential campaign brought out both "great enthusiasm" and anger in people. His message of change raised hope for some and brought fear to others. Kennedy wanted to be a bridge across the divide of American society. His bid for the presidency saw not only a continuation of the programs he and his brother had undertaken during the president's term in office, but also an extension of Johnson's Great Society. [279]

Kennedy visited numerous small towns and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches, often in troubled inner cities. He made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part led to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia. [280]

On April 4, 1968, Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and gave a heartfelt impromptu speech in Indianapolis's inner city, calling for a reconciliation between the races. The address was the first time Kennedy spoke publicly about his brother's killing. [281] Riots broke out in 60 cities in the wake of King's death, but not in Indianapolis, a fact many attribute to the effect of this speech. [282] Kennedy addressed the City Club of Cleveland the next day, on April 5, 1968, delivering the famous On the Mindless Menace of Violence speech. [283] He attended King's funeral, accompanied by Jacqueline and Ted Kennedy. He was described as being the "only white politician to hear only cheers and applause." [284]

Despite Kennedy's high profile and name recognition, McCarthy won most of the early primaries, including Kennedy's native state of Massachusetts. [285] Kennedy won the Indiana Democratic primary on May 7 with 42 percent of the vote, and the Nebraska primary on May 14 with 52 percent of the vote. On May 28, Kennedy lost the Oregon primary, marking the first time a Kennedy lost an election, and it was assumed that McCarthy was the preferred choice among the young voters. [286] If he could defeat McCarthy in the California primary, the leadership of the campaign thought, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one against Vice President Humphrey at the Chicago national convention in August.

Kennedy scored major victories when he won both the California and South Dakota primaries on June 4. He addressed his supporters shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. [287] Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut to a press room. [288] He did this despite being advised by his bodyguard—former FBI agent Bill Barry—to avoid the kitchen. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Kennedy turned to his left and shook hands with hotel busboy Juan Romero just as Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, [289] opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver. Kennedy was hit three times, and five other people were wounded. [290]

George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and former professional football player Rosey Grier are credited with wrestling Sirhan to the ground after he shot the senator. [291] As Kennedy lay mortally wounded, Romero cradled his head and placed a rosary in his hand. Kennedy asked Romero, "Is everybody OK?", and Romero responded, "Yes, everybody's OK." Kennedy then turned away from Romero and said, "Everything's going to be OK." [292] [293] After several minutes, medical attendants arrived and lifted the senator onto a stretcher, prompting him to whisper, "Don't lift me", which were his last words. [294] [295] He lost consciousness shortly thereafter. [296] He was rushed first to Los Angeles' Central Receiving Hospital, less than 2 miles (3.2 km) east of the Ambassador Hotel, and then to the adjoining (one city block distant) Good Samaritan Hospital. Despite extensive neurosurgery to remove the bullet and bone fragments from his brain, Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. (PDT) on June 6, nearly 26 hours after the shooting.

Robert Kennedy's death, like the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, has been the subject of conspiracy theories.


Kennedy's body was returned to Manhattan, where it lay in repose at Saint Patrick's Cathedral from approximately 10:00 p.m. until 10:00 a.m. on June 8. [297] [298] A high requiem Mass was held at the cathedral at 10:00 a.m. on June 8. The service was attended by members of the extended Kennedy family, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and members of the Johnson cabinet. [299] Ted, the only surviving Kennedy brother, said the following:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." [300]

The requiem Mass concluded with the hymn "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", sung by Andy Williams. [301] Immediately following the Mass, Kennedy's body was transported by a special private train to Washington, D.C. Kennedy's funeral train was pulled by two Penn Central GG1 electric locomotives. [302] Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations along the route, paying their respects as the train passed. The train departed New York Penn Station at 12:30 pm. [303] When it arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, an eastbound train on a parallel track to the funeral train hit and killed two spectators and seriously injured four, [304] after they were unable to get off the track in time, even though the eastbound train's engineer had slowed to 30 mph for the normally 55 mph curve, blown his horn continuously, and rung his bell through the curve. [305] [306] [307] The normally four-hour trip took more than eight hours because of the thick crowds lining the tracks on the 225-mile (362 km) journey. [308] The train was scheduled to arrive at about 4:30 pm, [309] [310] but sticking brakes on the casket-bearing car contributed to delays, [305] and the train finally arrived at 9:10 p.m. on June 8. [308]


Kennedy was buried close to his brother John in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. [301] Although he had always maintained that he wished to be buried in Massachusetts, his family believed Robert should be interred in Arlington next to his brother. [311] The procession left Union Station and passed the New Senate Office Building, where he had his offices, and then proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial, where it paused. The Marine Corps Band played The Battle Hymn of the Republic. [306] The funeral motorcade arrived at the cemetery at 10:24 pm. As the vehicles entered the cemetery, people lining the roadway spontaneously lit candles to guide the motorcade to the burial site. [306]

The 15-minute ceremony began at 10:30 p.m. Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, officiated at the graveside service in lieu of Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who fell ill during the trip. [308] Also officiating was Archbishop of New York Terence Cooke. [306] On behalf of the United States, John Glenn presented the folded flag to Senator Ted Kennedy, who passed it to Robert's eldest son, Joe, who passed it to Ethel Kennedy. The Navy Band played The Navy Hymn. [306]

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery said that Kennedy's burial was the only night burial to have taken place at the cemetery. [312] (The re-interment of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died two days after his birth in August 1963, and a stillborn daughter, Arabella, both children of President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, also occurred at night.) After the president was interred in Arlington Cemetery, the two infants were buried next to him on December 5, 1963, in a private ceremony without publicity. [306] His brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was also buried at night, in 2009. [313]

On June 9, President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned security staff to all U.S. presidential candidates and declared an official national day of mourning. [314] After the assassination, the mandate of the U.S. Secret Service was altered by Congress to include the protection of U.S. presidential candidates. [315] [316]


On June 17, 1950, Kennedy married socialite Ethel Skakel, the third daughter of businessman George and Ann Skakel (née Brannack), at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple had 11 children Kathleen (b. 1951), Joseph (b. 1952), Robert Jr. (b. 1954), David (1955–1984), Courtney (b. 1956), Michael (1958–1997), Kerry (b. 1959), Christopher (b. 1963), Max (b. 1965), Douglas (b. 1967), and Rory (b. December 1968, after her father's assassination). [104]

Kennedy owned a home at the well-known Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts however, he spent most of his time at his estate in McLean, Virginia, known as Hickory Hill (located west of Washington, D.C.). His widow, Ethel, and their children continued to live at Hickory Hill after his death. [317] Ethel Kennedy sold Hickory Hill for $8.25 million in 2009. [318]

Attitudes and approach

Kennedy was said to be the gentlest and shyest of the family, as well as the least articulate orally. [25] By the time he was a young boy, his grandmother, Josie Fitzgerald, worried he would become a "sissy". His mother had a similar concern, [33] as he was the "smallest and thinnest", but soon afterward, the family discovered "there was no fear of that". [319] Family friend Lem Billings met Kennedy when he was eight years old and would later reflect that he loved him, adding that Kennedy "was the nicest little boy I ever met". [25] Billings also said Kennedy was barely noticed "in the early days, but that's because he didn't bother anybody". [18] Luella Hennessey, who became the nurse for the Kennedy children when Kennedy was 12, called him "the most thoughtful and considerate" of his siblings. [25]

Kennedy was teased by his siblings, as in their family it was a norm for humor to be displayed in that fashion. He would turn jokes on himself or remain silent. [33] Despite his gentle demeanor, he could be outspoken, and once engaged a priest in a public argument that horrified his mother, who later conceded that he had been correct all along. Even when arguing for a noble cause, his comments could have "a cutting quality". [320]

Although Joe Kennedy's most ambitious dreams centered around Bobby's older brothers, Bobby maintained the code of personal loyalty that seemed to infuse the life of his family. His competitiveness was admired by his father and elder brothers, while his loyalty bound them more affectionately close.

A rather timid child, he was often the target of his father's dominating temperament. Working on the campaigns of older brother John, he was more involved, passionate, and tenacious than the candidate himself, obsessed with detail, fighting out every battle, and taking workers to task. He had always been closer to John than the other members of the family. [104]

Kennedy's opponents on Capitol Hill maintained that his collegiate magnanimity was sometimes hindered by a tenacious and somewhat impatient manner. His professional life was dominated by the same attitudes that governed his family life: a certainty that good humor and leisure must be balanced by service and accomplishment. Schlesinger comments that Kennedy could be both the most ruthlessly diligent and yet generously adaptable of politicians, at once both temperamental and forgiving. In this he was very much his father's son, lacking truly lasting emotional independence, and yet possessing a great desire to contribute. He lacked the innate self-confidence of his contemporaries yet found a greater self-assurance in the experience of married life, an experience that he stated had given him a base of self-belief from which to continue his efforts in the public arena. [104]

Upon hearing yet again the assertion that he was "ruthless", Kennedy once joked to a reporter, "If I find out who has called me ruthless I will destroy him." He also confessed to possessing a bad temper that required self-control: "My biggest problem as counsel is to keep my temper. I think we all feel that when a witness comes before the United States Senate, he has an obligation to speak frankly and tell the truth. To see people sit in front of us and lie and evade makes me boil inside. But you can't lose your temper if you do, the witness has gotten the best of you." [321]

Attorney Michael O'Donnell wrote, "[Kennedy] offered that most intoxicating of political aphrodisiacs: authenticity. He was blunt to a fault, and his favorite campaign activity was arguing with college students. To many, his idealistic opportunism was irresistible."

In his earlier life, Kennedy had developed a reputation as the family's attack dog. He was a hostile cross-examiner on Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee a fixer and leg-breaker as JFK's campaign manager an unforgiving and merciless cutthroat—his father's son right down to Joseph Kennedy's purported observation that "he hates like me." Yet Bobby Kennedy somehow became a liberal icon, an antiwar visionary who tried to outflank Lyndon Johnson's Great Society from the left. [322] [323]

On Kennedy's ideological development, his brother John once remarked, "He might once have been intolerant of liberals as such because his early experience was with that high-minded, high-speaking kind who never got anything done. That all changed the moment he met a liberal like Walter Reuther." [324]

Religious faith and Greek philosophy

Kennedy's Catholicism was central to his politics and personal attitude to life and its purpose he inherited his faith from his family. He was more religious than his brothers [104] and approached his duties with a Catholic worldview.

Throughout his life, he made reference to his faith, how it informed every area of his life, and how it gave him the strength to re-enter politics following his older brother's assassination. His was not an unresponsive and staid faith, but the faith of a Catholic Radical, perhaps the first successful Catholic Radical in American political history. [325]

In the last years of his life, he also found great solace in the playwrights and poets of ancient Greece, especially the writings of Aeschylus, [104] suggested to him by Jacqueline after JFK's death. [326] In his Indianapolis speech on April 4, 1968, on the day of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy quoted these lines from Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. [327] [328]

Kennedy was the first sibling of a president of the United States to serve as U.S. Attorney General. Biographer Evan Thomas wrote that at times Kennedy misused his powers by "modern standards", but concluded, "on the whole, even counting his warts, he was a great attorney general." [330] Walter Isaacson commented that Kennedy "turned out arguably to be the best attorney general in history", praising him for his championing of civil rights and other initiatives of the administration. [331] As Kennedy stepped down from being attorney general in 1964 to assume the office of senator from New York, The New York Times, notably having criticized his appointment three years prior, praised Kennedy for raising the standards of the position. [332] Some of his successor attorneys general have been unfavorably compared to him, for not displaying the same level of poise in the profession. [333] [334] Near the end of his time in office as attorney general under Barack Obama, Eric Holder cited Kennedy as the inspiration for his belief that the Justice Department could be "a force for that which is right." [335]

Kennedy has also been praised for his oratorical abilities [336] and his skill at creating unity. [337] Joseph A. Palermo of The Huffington Post observed that Kennedy's words "could cut through social boundaries and partisan divides in a way that seems nearly impossible today." [338] Dolores Huerta [339] and Philip W. Johnston [340] expressed the view that Kennedy, both in his speeches and actions, was unique in his willingness to take political risks. That blunt sincerity was said by associates to be authentic Frank N. Magill wrote that Kennedy's oratorical skills lent their support to minorities and other disenfranchised groups who began seeing him as an ally. [341]

Kennedy's assassination was a blow to the optimism for a brighter future that his campaign had brought for many Americans who lived through the turbulent 1960s. [279] [342] [343] [344] Juan Romero, the busboy who shook hands with Kennedy right before he was shot, later said, "It made me realize that no matter how much hope you have it can be taken away in a second." [345]

Kennedy's death has been cited as a significant factor in the Democratic Party's loss of the 1968 presidential election. [346] [347] Since his passing, Kennedy has become generally well-respected by liberals [348] and conservatives, which is far from the polarized views of him during his lifetime. [349] Joe Scarborough, John Ashcroft, [350] Tom Bradley, [351] Mark Dayton, [352] [353] John Kitzhaber, [354] Max Cleland, [355] Tim Cook, [356] [357] Phil Bredesen, [358] Joe Biden, [359] J. K. Rowling, [360] Jim McGreevey, [361] Gavin Newsom, [362] and Ray Mabus [363] have acknowledged Kennedy's influence on them. Josh Zeitz of Politico observed, "Bobby Kennedy has since become an American folk hero—the tough, crusading liberal gunned down in the prime of life." [364]

Kennedy's (and to a lesser extent his older brother's) ideas about using government authority to assist less fortunate peoples became central to American liberalism as a tenet of the "Kennedy legacy". [365]

In the months and years after Robert F. Kennedy's death, numerous roads, public schools, and other facilities across the United States have been named in his memory.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights was founded in 1968, with an international award program to recognize human rights activists. [366]

The sports stadium in Washington, D.C., was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969. [367] [368]

In 1978 the United States Congress awarded Kennedy its Gold Medal of Honor. [369]

On January 12, 1979, a 15-cent commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp (U.S. #1770) was issued in Washington.D.C., honoring R.F.K. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing distributed 159,297,600 of the perforated, blue-and-white stamps—an unusually-large printing. The stamp design was taken from a family photo suggested by his wife, Ethel. [370] [371]

In 1998 the United States Mint released the Robert F. Kennedy silver dollar, a special dollar coin that featured Kennedy's image on the obverse and the emblems of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate on the reverse.

On November 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft dedicated the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington, D.C., as the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, honoring Kennedy on what would have been his 76th birthday. They both spoke during the ceremony, as did Kennedy's eldest son, Joseph. [372]

Robert F. Kennedy silver dollar
Obverse Reverse
Proof Robert F. Kennedy silver dollar

In a further effort to remember Kennedy and continue his work helping the disadvantaged, a small group of private citizens launched the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps in 1969. The private, nonprofit, Massachusetts-based organization helps more than 800 abused and neglected children each year. [373]

A bust of Kennedy resides in the library of the University of Virginia School of Law where he obtained his law degree. [374]

On June 4, 2008 (the eve of the 40th anniversary of his assassination), the New York State Assembly voted to rename the Triborough Bridge in New York City the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge. New York State Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law on August 8, 2008. [375] [376] The bridge is now commonly known as the RFK-Triborough Bridge.

On September 20, 2016, the United States Navy announced the renaming of a refueling ship in honor of Kennedy during a ceremony attended by members of his family. [377]

Personal items and documents from his office in the Justice Department Building are displayed in a permanent exhibit dedicated to him at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Papers from his years as attorney general, senator, peace and civil rights activist and presidential candidate, as well as personal correspondence, are also housed in the library. [378]

Established in 1984, the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archives stored at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth contains thousands of copies of government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act public disclosure process as well as manuscripts, photographs, audiotape interviews, video tapes, news clippings and research notes compiled by journalists and other private citizens who have investigated discrepancies in the case. [379] [380]

Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Several public institutions jointly honor Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

  • In 1969, the former Woodrow Wilson Junior College, a two-year institution and a constituent campus of the City Colleges of Chicago, was renamed Kennedy–King College. [381]
  • In 1994 the City of Indianapolis erected the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Robert Kennedy's honor near the space made famous by his speech from the back of a pickup truck the night King died. The monument in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park depicts a sculpture of RFK reaching out from a large metal slab to a sculpture of King, who is part of a similar slab. [382] This is meant to symbolize their attempts in life to bridge the gaps between the races—an attempt that united them even in death. A state historical marker has also been placed at the site. [383] A nephew of King and Indiana U.S. CongresswomanJulia Carson presided over the event both made speeches from the back of a pickup truck in similar fashion to RFK's speech. [384]

In 2019, Kennedy's "Speech on the Death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." (April 4, 1968) was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". [385]

  • The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee's Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions (1960)
  • Just Friends and Brave Enemies (1962)
  • The Pursuit of Justice (1964)
  • To Seek a Newer World, essays (1967)
  • Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, published posthumously (1969)

Kennedy has been the subject of several documentaries and has appeared in various works of popular culture. Kennedy's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been dramatized by Martin Sheen in the TV play The Missiles of October (1974) and by Steven Culp in Thirteen Days (2000). [386] The film Bobby (2006) is the story of multiple people's lives leading up to RFK's assassination. The film employs stock footage from his presidential campaign, and he is briefly portrayed by Dave Fraunces. [387] Barry Pepper won an Emmy for his portrayal of Kennedy in The Kennedys (2011), an 8-part miniseries. [388] [389] He is played by Peter Sarsgaard in the film about Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie (2016). [390] [391] He is played by Jack Huston in Martin Scorsese's film The Irishman (2019). [392]

Watch the video: The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (August 2022).