As U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964, Robert F. Kennedy served as one of the most trusted advisors to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, on matters of civil rights. Although Martin Luther King boldly criticized the attorney general and the Department of Justice for its failure to investigate civil rights violations, he wrote Kennedy in 1964 praising him for his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Your able, courageous and effective work in guiding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through both Houses of Congress has earned for you an even warmer spot in the hearts of freedom loving people the world over. I add to theirs my sincere and heartfelt thanks” (King, 24 June 1964).
Born on 20 November 1925, Robert Kennedy was the seventh of nine children of Joseph Patrick and Rose Kennedy. Despite a mediocre academic performance in high school, Kennedy was admitted to Harvard University in 1944. He joined the Navy during World War II, but was discharged following an injury. Kennedy resumed his studies at Harvard, graduating in 1948. He went on to attend University of Virginia Law School and earned his LLB in 1951.
Kennedy’s political career began in 1946, when he helped manage the Massachusetts congressional campaign of his brother, John F. Kennedy. For the next several years, Kennedy assisted with his brother’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1952 and his presidential campaign in 1960. Between campaigns Kennedy served as legal assistant to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy during the infamous House Un-American Activities Commission hearings. He also served on the John McCellan Committee of the U.S. Senate, which was charged with investigating organized crime.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, King participated in a sit-in, a direct violation of his probation stemming from driving with an invalid license in 1960. John F. Kennedy phoned Coretta Scott King to offer his support, and Robert Kennedy then initiated a series of contacts with Ernest Vandiver, governor of Georgia, which eventually led to King’s release. Robert Kennedy downplayed the significance of the phone call to the press, explaining that he had been pressed to act because of the numerous calls to Kennedy headquarters. After his brother was elected president by a narrow margin over Richard Nixon, Kennedy was appointed Attorney General of the United States.
The relationship between the Attorney General Kennedy and the civil rights movement was tested when King and several hundred protesters were threatened by an angry mob outside of a Montgomery church, where King was holding a mass meeting in support of the Freedom Rides. As the mob grew more hostile, King feared for the people inside and phoned Kennedy, asking him to intervene. Kennedy assured King that federal marshals were on the way to Montgomery and proposed a cooling-off period for the Freedom Rides. James Farmer and Diane Nash rejected the idea of a halt to the demonstrations. Federal marshals arrived to protect the protesters, but as the seige continued the marshals were eventually replaced by the Alabama State National Guard under Governor John Patterson's control; a decision that greatly disappointed King.
Although the Kennedy administration was the first to give substantial attention to the southern freedom struggle, King continuously challenged Robert Kennedy and the Department of Justice to make a greater commitment to civil rights. A week after the melee in Montgomery, King sent Kennedy a formal complaint accusing the Justice Department of not enforcing the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling, after 4 students in Atlanta were arrested for seeking to use bus terminals on an integrated basis. “It appears,” King wrote, “that only swift and decisive action by your department will make it clear to every citizen the right of unencumbered travel regardless of race, creed or color” (King, 29 May 1961).
Between 1961 and 1963, King registered a number of complaints with Kennedy and the Department of Justice regarding the violence faced by civil rights workers in Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi. In one of Kennedy’s standard responses to King, he expressed the president's "strong conviction that these matters should be satisfactorily settled through negotiation between the city commission and Negro citizens” (Kennedy, 2 September 1962).
As King’s stature as a national leader heightened, he was closely scrutinized by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In early 1962, King’s relationship with two suspected Communists, Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison, caused alarm within the FBI. Harris Wofford warned King against associating with O’Dell and Levison, a warning President Kennedy repeated to King. King asked O’Dell to resign, but found it difficult to sever relations with Levison, who was a trusted advisor. In October 1963, Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of King’s home and office in response to his ongoing relationship with Levison.
After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Robert Kennedy continued to serve as Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson until September 1964. That November, he was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent New York. As a senator, Kennedy spoke out against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In March 1966, King applauded Kennedy’s statement against the war, invoking the legacy of his brother, the former president: “Your great brother, carried us far in new directions with his concept of a world of diversity; your position advances us to the next step which requires us to reach the political maturity to recognize and relate to all elements produced by the contemporary colonial revolutions” (King, 2 March 1966). The following year, King delivered his most comprehensive speech on the war, “Beyond Vietnam” to a crowd of over 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York.
While campaigning for the presidency on 4 April 1968, Kennedy learned of King’s assassination during a speech at a rally in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kennedy informed the largely black audience of King’s death, cautioning them not to be “filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people,” for “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort” (Kennedy, 4 April 1968). Just two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in California while campaigning for the presidency.
Arsenault, Freedom Riders, 2006.
Introduction in Papers 5:38─39.
Kennedy, Statement on death of King, 4 April 1968, EMHP-DGU.
Kennedy to King, 2 September 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, A Call to Conscience, eds. Carson and Shepard, 2001.
King to Kennedy, 29 May 1961, MLKP-MBU.
King to Kennedy, 24 June 1964, BMC-MWalK.
King to Kennedy, 2 March 1966, MLKJP-GAMK.
Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, 1980.