Fifty years after his assassination, why does Bobby Kennedy still command so much of our attention and affection? In part, it’s because of the searing memory of his death, less than five years after his brother’s and just two months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. In part, it’s because of a wistful counterfactual fantasy: Had Kennedy lived and beaten Richard Nixon for the presidency, we might have been spared the national nightmare of Watergate and the bloody, futile “peace with honor” strategy in Vietnam. In part, it’s because of the romantic, forelocked figure Bobby had become toward the end, visiting the poor from Appalachia to urban ghettoes, and comforting a stunned and angry crowd in Indianapolis on the night of King’s slaying. But most of all, I think, it’s because of how he matured for the better over time, from his days as an aide to red-baiter Joe McCarthy and attack-dog attorney general for JFK. Bobby Kennedy was one of the rare leaders in our national history who appeared to grow wiser, humbler and more compassionate the more fame and power he attained.
In this short and passionately written book, “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America,” the prolific scholar and commentator Michael Eric Dyson revisits a turning point in Kennedy’s moral and intellectual odyssey on the issue of race. The year was 1963, and he and his brother had finally begun to give more than lip service to civil rights. Bobby had sent federal troops to guard James Meredith when he enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, and he had authorized his Justice Department aide, Burke Marshall, to work behind the scenes to free King and hundreds of young protesters from jail in Birmingham, Ala. Now Kennedy was searching for ideas about what the administration should do as the racial battle shifted to the North. After encountering James Baldwin at a White House reception and inviting the author to breakfast at his Hickory Hill estate, Kennedy suggested that Baldwin assemble a group of thoughtful African Americans to meet with him in New York, at the Kennedy family apartment near Central Park.
When Baldwin showed up on the night of May 24 with a group of cultural luminaries — including singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and sociologist Kenneth Clark — Kennedy expected to have a policy discussion and to receive thanks for the administration’s interventions. Instead, he got an earful of rage. Baldwin had also invited Jerome Smith, a young Freedom Rider who was in New York receiving medical treatment for bloody beatings he received in the South. Kennedy began by lecturing the group on the balancing act of advocating civil rights while courting Southern white political and legislative support, and on the “trouble” created by militant black Muslims in the North. “You have no idea what trouble is!” Smith, who had a speech impediment, blurted out. “Because I’m close to the moment when I’m ready to take up a gun!” Kennedy tried to steer the conversation back to the luminaries, but Hansberry told him that the stammering Freedom Rider spoke for all of them. Suddenly the entire congregation unloaded on Kennedy with stories “of the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro,” as Horne put it. Clarke, the measured academic, described it as “one of the most violent, emotional verbal assaults that I have ever witnessed. Bobby sat immobile in the chair. He no longer continued to defend himself. He just sat, and you could see the tension and the pressure building in him.”
In the days after the meeting, Bobby remained furious and defensive. He told aides that the black celebrities had no sense of political reality and were showing off for Smith because they hadn’t suffered on the front lines of the struggle. Flashing his mean streak, he made light of Baldwin’s homosexuality and the interracial marriage of Clarence Jones, King’s attorney, who attended the meeting. Yet as weeks and months passed, Bobby began to reflect on the source of the black anger and to arrive at a new perspective. About Smith, he confessed to his press secretary, “I guess if I were in his shoes, if I had gone through what he’s gone through, I might feel differently about this country.”
Talking to historian Evan Thomas for his insightful biography of Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, then deputy attorney general, recalled: “After Baldwin, he was absolutely shocked. . . . The fact that he thought he knew so much — and learned he didn’t — was important.” To Thomas as well, Burke Marshall speculated that Bobby saw a connection between Smith’s rage and his own feelings of anger and alienation growing up in the shadow of the glamorous older Kennedy brothers and sisters. As Thomas put it, gradually RFK made the leap “from contempt to identification.”
Although it’s the peg for this book, as journalists would say, Dyson spends only one chapter on the Baldwin meeting. His larger purpose is to reflect on the relevance of the dynamic it represented — speaking truth to power — in the current racial and political climate. Singling out the cultural types represented in Baldwin’s delegation — artists, intellectuals and activists — Dyson devotes individual chapters to how examples of each bear witness to black struggle today. When it comes to artists (and athletes), Dyson invokes a sometimes dizzying array of pop-culture stars and phenomena, from Jay-Z and Beyoncé, to LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, to “Hamilton” and “Black Panther.” But where he is most illuminating and provocative is in discussing figures like himself: black public intellectuals. (Anyone who has followed the feud between best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harvard professor Cornel West will want to read Dyson’s defense of the former and withering takedown of the latter, as well as his glowing appreciation of the eclectic L.A.-based essayist Erin Aubry Kaplan.)
Dyson’s most interesting and newsworthy observations touch on the role of black intellectuals and activists in the 2016 presidential race. He credits the Black Lives Matter protesters who dogged Hillary Clinton, trying to educate her about the depth of emotion surrounding the treatment of blacks by police and the prison system, just as Baldwin’s delegation schooled Kennedy. At the same time, he applauds Clinton for pushing those protesters to be more specific about their policy demands, and points out that Clinton had more concrete plans for addressing racial inequality than did either her husband or Barack Obama, whom Dyson praises for his character but accuses of having been “of little practical use to black folk.”
After spending the rest of the book extolling the power of witness, confronting the results of 2016 forces Dyson to admit its limitations. He cites the statistics on the decline in black voting compared with 2008 and 2012, particularly in states that went for Donald Trump over Clinton by less than 10 percentage points. Name-checking again, he chastises commentators such as Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr., who refused to forgive Clinton for her past positions on welfare reform and “super predators” and encouraged young blacks to stay away from the polls or to vote for protest candidates. In so doing, Dyson argues, they helped bring about the far greater evil of a president who has wantonly degraded the racial dialogue and started to reverse decades of progress in federal support for black opportunity and protection of black voting and workplace rights. (Dyson doesn’t mention that the Clinton critics formed an unwitting alliance with Russian trolls who targeted the black “woke generation” with anti-Clinton propaganda on Facebook and other social media.)
Returning to the fateful meeting between Kennedy and Baldwin, Dyson concedes that truth must have a purpose beyond its sound. In 2016, Dyson writes, “the unfortunate surrender of the black left to ideological purity” ignored “a lesson that Baldwin and his fellow thinkers and activists never forgot: the point of witness, and the policy that it informs, is, always, the achievement of justice for the black folks witnesses claim to speak for.”
By Michael Eric Dyson
294 pp. $24.99