Robert Kennedy was accustomed to a degree of deference in any setting. Heir to a fortune, brother of the President, and US Attorney General, he walked into his father’s Manhattan apartment to meet with civil rights workers in May of 1963 expecting to control the tone and content of the conversation.
Kennedy had introduced himself to author James Baldwin the day before with a request that Baldwin assemble a group of thinkers to explain the worrying rise of extremism in the black community. The Administration felt it was moving as fast as reasonably possible on civil rights issues, but that advocates were making dangerously unrealistic demands. On short notice, Baldwin was forced to reach beyond the ranks of seasoned civil rights leaders experienced in managing the sensitivities of white politicians, including instead a collection of hardened frontline volunteers. The President’s brother was about to get an unforgettable education.
At first, civil rights figures assembled for the meeting listened patiently as Kennedy chided them over the rise of black nationalism and their impatience in seeking change. He warned that Black Muslims, in particular, were threatening to cause serious trouble. A young CORE volunteer, Jerome Smith, had heard enough, interrupting the Attorney General to explain, “You don’t know what trouble is.”
Smith had volunteered for the most dangerous round of Freedom Rides through Mississippi. He served time in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. He had been beaten repeatedly, but stayed on in the most violent sections of Mississippi organizing protests for the desegregation of bus facilities. As Smith unloaded on the President’s brother, explaining that he’d never consider fighting for the United States and that he was ready to use violence in defense of his rights, the rest of the workers in the room enthusiastically backed his stance. Kennedy reddened in umbrage while Baldwin scrambled to hold the meeting together. As the rancor deepened, playwright Lorraine Hansberry led the civil rights workers in a walkout, leaving the Attorney General in an empty apartment with Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and attorney Clarence Jones.
Baldwin and Belafonte initially saw the meeting as a disaster, with good reason. Kennedy went straight to the FBI to get files on the civil rights workers. He relented to J. Edgar Hoover’s long-standing request to initiate a wiretap on Clarence Jones, a line of intelligence that would eventually uncover sordid details of Dr. King’s private life. When Belafonte related the details of the “disaster” to King he replied, “Maybe it’s just what Bobby needed to hear.” King was right.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger documented the longer term impact of the confrontation on Kennedy’s politics. Having finally seen a glimpse of the black experience in America, his tone in Administration meetings began to shift. The younger Kennedy had treated the Civil Rights movement as a political nuisance to be managed in order to protect his brother. Almost immediately after this meeting, RFK began pushing officials into action on long-stalled desegregation projects and chiding white liberals for their naiveté.
Barely a month after Jerome Smith confronted the Attorney General, Kennedy would repeat Smith’s tirade almost verbatim in Congressional testimony supporting the Civil Rights Act, “How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, ‘When war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you’re a citizen of Mississippi—and we can’t help you’?”
James Baldwin and Robert Kennedy would never mend their personal rift, but Bobby was on his way to becoming the leading white advocate for civil rights in the US. Confrontation has its costs, but it works.
Gay rights advocates worried in the 90’s that the push by some activists for marriage equality would derail the entire movement. Passage of a constitutional amendment striking down same-sex marriage in Hawaii in 1998 seemed to validate their concern. Fifteen years and many bitter battles later, marriage equality was federal law everywhere in the US.
From Jim Crow to the cigarette industry, activists have torn down seemingly invulnerable centers of power by being strategically and persistently unreasonable. Now, the same unruly, uncompromising forces are battering away at inequities in the health industry and the abuses of the gun lobby. Confrontation works. The loudest, most insistent voices get heard, especially in times of chaos.
There is a time for all things under the sun. There is a time for reason, calculation and compromise. There is a time for making unreasonable demands and setting fires. No single method or ethic always prevails, no single form of power rules them all. We live in an in-between era, a time of transition between orders. The shape of the emerging order would not be defined by the political middle, even if a coherent middle existed. Our power vacuum will be filled by those with energy and determination to move fast and break things, for good or ill.
For those pining to restore a pre-Trumpian order, a world whose Mitt Romneys and Joe Bidens share cordial dinners together behind a theatrical facade of faux partisan rivalry, my advice is to go home and wait this out. Too many of our most consequential problems have ripened too close together in time. We are going to wade through a series of angry, winner-take-all political conflicts before we get to play at civility again. The shape of that reconstructed world remains undetermined. Good, principled people can determine its form if they are willful enough to fight for it, otherwise they will be pushed to the margins. If confrontation and conflict make you uncomfortable, it would be a good idea to retreat into daytime TV for a couple of years. Neither side needs you right now.
Jerome Smith is still alive. So are most of the men who beat him and imprisoned him, and they still vote. Smith did his part, but this fight isn’t over. Confrontation works. Embrace it, and buckle up.