Today the Weekend Reader brings you Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen, editor of The New York Times op-ed section. Bill of the Century details the arduous mission of civil rights leaders to pass a bill that granted equal rights to millions of Americans regardless of race, sex, or religion. Risen explores the long list of other important contributors who drafted the bill and pushed it through Congress, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
You can purchase the book here.
While in Birmingham, [Assistant Attorney General Burke] Marshall had spent some time talking with Dick Gregory, a black comedian and outspoken civil rights activist. Gregory said that part of the administration’s problem was that the Kennedys never actually talked with black people. Marshall relayed the suggestion to Robert Kennedy. The attorney general asked if Marshall could set up a meeting with the author James Baldwin, whose essay “Letter from a Region of My Mind” he had read in the New Yorker. Marshall got in touch with Baldwin, who agreed to come to Washington to meet Kennedy on May 23.
When the day arrived, though, Baldwin’s plane was delayed, and by the time he got to Kennedy’s northern Virginia home, the attorney general had only twenty minutes to talk. Kennedy began by admitting that the proposals under consideration were focused on issues facing Southern blacks and would do little to help those in the Northern cities. What, he asked Baldwin, should be done? Baldwin offered to assemble a group of black activists and intellectuals for Kennedy to meet with. By chance, Kennedy said, he was going to be in New York the next day—why not set up a get-together that afternoon?
The next morning, Kennedy, Marshall, and Oberdorfer flew to New York for a meeting with the heads of several major five and dimes, theaters, and department stores—Woolworth’s, Kress, J. C. Penney, McCrory, Sears—to discuss what they could do to desegregate their branches in the South. Kennedy came away with noncommittal responses, assurances that the chains would do the best they could but that they could not promise anything that would undermine their profits, which in the South, they insisted, meant acceding to customers’ demands that they remain segregated.
Kennedy and his aides then headed to his father’s apartment at 24 Central Park West for the meeting with Baldwin’s hastily assembled focus group. If not a who’s who of the black community in New York, it was a good cross-section: Kenneth Clark, the eminent psychologist from the City College of New York; the singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne; the playwright Lorraine Hansberry; Jerome Smith, a twenty-four-year-old veteran of the Freedom Rides; Baldwin’s brother David and a friend of his, Thais Aubrey; Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer, Clarence Jones; and the Urban League activist Edwin C. Berry. (The white actor Rip Torn, who was active in civil rights, was also there.)
Clark and Berry were supposed to set an intellectual, measured tone for the meeting, but it derailed almost immediately. “In that moment, with the situation in Birmingham the way it was,” said Horne later, “none of us wanted to hear figures and percentages and all that stuff. Nobody even cared about expressions of goodwill.”
Smith, a passionate man with a pronounced stammer, began by saying, “Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you or your brother.” He said it was obvious that the Kennedys did not care about Southern protesters. In fact, he said, just being in the same room as the attorney general made him sick to his stomach.
Kennedy was visibly offended, but rather than engage with Smith, he tried to ignore him. He began addressing Baldwin, but Hansberry cut him off. “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 at Smith. The young Freedom Rider began explaining what he had lived through in the South, emphasizing how little the federal government had done to help him.
Eventually Kennedy interrupted him. “Just let me say something,” he said.
“Okay,” said Smith, “but this time say something that means something. So far you haven’t said a thing!”
Kennedy tried to explain the bills, but Smith just scoffed. The situation was far too dire. He was a nonviolent man, he said, but he was unsure for how long. “When I pull the trigger, kiss it goodbye!”