East of Eden
Flashback Friday: That way awkward dinner party at Bobby Kennedy's in May '63.
James Baldwin, left, and Bobby Kennedy. (Google Images)
By the time Robert F. Kennedy was killed in 1968, he had come to be viewed by many as a politician who cared deeply about Civil Rights, poverty, and oppression.
But it wasn't always that way. In fact, just five years earlier, at a private dinner party he hosted in NYC with some of Black America's most elite, he was decidedly unwoke.
In Lawrence O'Donnell's new book, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, he recounts some of the events of the ill-fated shindig:
RFK invited the young black novelist and intellectual James Baldwin to bring a group of black intellectuals and activists to a discussion at Joseph Kennedy’s huge apartment on Central Park South in Manhattan. That meeting, held on May 24, 1963, didn’t go as Bobby had hoped. When he told the group that federal lawyers were doing a good job in the South, the group laughed openly in his face. Then, with Bobby sputtering in bewilderment, one of the young attendees told the attorney general that as a black man, he would never fight on behalf of the United States against Cuba. This was unthinkable—just the kind of communist-inspired thinking, as far as Bobby was concerned, that the Kennedys had feared was influencing the civil rights movement.
Irish Americans, too, had faced prejudice, Bobby told the group, and now there was an Irish Catholic in the White House. Maybe in another generation, there would be a black president. That was too much for Baldwin. “You know, I have to tell you,” he said, “your grandfather came over here from Ireland just a generation or so ago, and your brother is president. My ancestors came over here a couple of hundred years ago on a slave ship, and you have the right, only through race and color, to tell me when I can participate in this government.” Bobby was disturbed both by Baldwin’s ideas and by his apparent homosexuality. He sensed in that room a barely veiled threat. If enormous progress was not made, right away, on civil rights, there would be violence.
After the meeting, Bobby asked Hoover to start FBI files on all of the attendees.
Yikes. Larry Tye, writing at Politico highlighted this story as part of an article that showed how Bobby grew far more understanding and determined to make equality a reality for Black Americans. Politico's version fleshes out the story with more names and details on the attendees:
“He [RFK] had called the meeting in hopes of persuading us that he and his brother were doing all that could be done,” remembered the singer Lena Horne, whose silken voice had earned her center stage at the Cotton Club and whose left-leaning politics had gotten her blacklisted in Hollywood. “The funny thing was that no one there disputed that. It was just that it did not seem enough. … He said something about his family and the kinds of discrimination it had had to fight. He also said he thought a Negro would be president within 40 years. He seemed to feel that this would establish some sort of identification, some sort of rapport, between us. It did not. … The emotions of Negroes are running so differently from those of white men these days that the comparison between a white man’s experience and a Negro’s just doesn’t work.”
Baldwin and Lena Horne embrace. (Image Source)
Jerome Smith, a young activist who had held back as long as he could, suddenly shattered the calm, his stammer underlining his anger. “Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” he began. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”
The real threat to white America wasn’t the Black Muslims, Smith insisted, it was when nonviolence advocates like him lost hope. The 24-year-old’s record made his words resonate. He had suffered as many savage beatings as any civil rights protester of the era, including one for which he was getting medical care in New York. But his patience and his pacifism were wearing thin, he warned his rapt audience. If the police came at him with more guns, dogs and hoses, he would answer with a weapon of his own. “When I pull a trigger,” he said, “kiss it goodbye.”
Civil Rights activist Jerome Smith's 1961 mugshot. He was arrested for being a Freedom Rider. (Image source)
Bobby was shocked, but Smith wasn’t through. Not only would young blacks like him fight to protect their rights at home, he said, but they would refuse to fight for America in Cuba, Vietnam or any of the other places the Kennedys saw threats. “Never! Never! Never!”
This was unfathomable to Bobby. “You will not fight for your country?” asked the attorney general, who had lost one brother and nearly a second at war. “How can you say that?” Rather than backing down, Smith said just being in the room with Bobby “makes me nauseous.” Others chimed in, demanding to know why the government couldn’t get tougher in taking on racist laws and ghetto blight.
Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun, stood to say she was sickened as well. “You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, pointing to Smith.
Writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. (Image Source)
Three hours into the evening the dialogue had become a brawl, with the tone set by Smith. “He didn’t sing or dance or act. Yet he became the focal point,” Baldwin said. “That boy, after all, in some sense, represented to everybody in that room our hope. Our honor. Our dignity. But, above all, our hope.” Bobby had heard enough. His tone let everyone know the welcome mat had been taken up. His flushed face showed how incensed he was.
Julie Belafonte with husband Harry Belafonte greet RFK. (Image Source)
As his guests were leaving he was approached by Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso, whom he had considered a loyal friend. “I said, ‘Well, why didn’t you say something?’” Bobby recounted later. “He said, ‘If I said something, it would affect my position with these people, and I have a chance to influence them. … If I sided with you on these matters, then I would become suspect.” Before Belafonte could finish his thought, Bobby turned away, grumbling, “Enough.”
Yet, it wasn't enough. Over the next five years, in the shadow of his brother's murder, Bobby Kennedy would go to apartheid-era South Africa; to the urban blight of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; and to Watts and East L.A. A change had come.