With Jane Clayson
Robert Kennedy took on poverty across racial lines. Fifty years after his assassination, we’ll look at that legacy.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. (@RickKahlenberg)
From The Reading List:
The New York Times (Opinion): "The Bobby Kennedy Pathway" — "Kennedy sought to build his unlikely coalition in part by running an economically populist campaign that vilified wealthy tax cheats and earned him the enmity of business leaders. 'We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests,' he told the journalist Jack Newfield.
But Kennedy knew that a populist economic message would not get through to working-class whites unless it was accompanied by a respect for their beliefs on issues like crime, welfare and patriotism. Gerard Doherty, one of his aides, recalled speaking to Kennedy: 'I said if he was going to win, he has to conduct a campaign for sheriff of Indiana. And he did.' Coupled with strong support for civil rights, Kennedy’s message about punishing looters got through. At one point during the campaign, Richard Nixon remarked to the reporter Theodore White, 'Do you know a lot of these people think Bobby is more a law-and-order man than I am!'"
CBS News: "Remembering 1968: Robert F. Kennedy, and a generation's loss" — "A young senator from New York, he used his bold-faced name, fame and political capital to focus on the forgotten … as when, in April 1967, he visited Mississippi to see the rural side of poverty.
When asked how his trip to the Delta came about, Marian Wright Edelman laughed, 'By a miracle.' Edelman, a young lawyer working with the poor in Mississippi, was right there with Kennedy, and knew his power with the people he was meeting.
'In most shacks, you would see Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy's pictures,' she said.
But Edelman says she was not prepared to like him, because – as attorney general – Kennedy had authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
Still, there Kennedy was, in Mississippi, putting poverty on the map.
'He was just shocked' by what he saw, said Peter Edelman, a Kennedy aide, who would meet Marian on that trip, and later marry her. 'You see children with swelling bellies, with running sores, and he said to me, 'I've been in third- and fourth-world countries and I haven't seen anything as terrible as this.'"
The Century Foundation: "The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy" — "This report makes three central points. First, it outlines the evidence suggesting Kennedy achieved a remarkable political coalition in time of strong political antagonism. Although contemporary witnesses to the campaign believed Kennedy’s appeal to be strong, some historians have subsequently questioned RFK’s ability to attract working-class whites. This report seeks to debunk the debunkers, drawing upon polling data and precinct results in key states to suggest Kennedy had powerful appeal with working-class blacks and whites alike.
Second, along the way, the report spells out the apparent reasons why Kennedy was able to appeal to working-class white and black voters at a time of great tension between the groups. In the end, he was able to communicate that he cared about both groups in a way that few politicians can today by respecting both their interests and their legitimate values. Unlike right-wing urban populists, he was inclusive of minority populations, and unlike today’s liberalism, Kennedy placed a priority on being inclusive of working-class whites. In short, he was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism.
Third, the report seeks to draw lessons from the 1968 campaign for progressives today. Although the campaign involved a unique candidate—the brother of a slain president—at a political moment very different than our own, RFK’s candidacy is more than a mere historic curiosity. Kennedy advanced critical themes and approaches that translate across time and candidates to inform the approach of progressives today. This section suggests a number of concrete policies that could prove important to restoring the multiracial, class-based coalition that Kennedy was able to forge."
June 5th, 1968. It’s been 50 years since shots rang out at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. His message cut across racial and economic barriers. His charisma was unmatched, unmistakable. His death, on the heels of the assassination of MLK Jr., plunged the nation in tremendous grief and fear. Now, half a century later, RFK is back in the spotlight.
This hour, On Point: the lessons of Robert F. Kennedy and what he might have given this country.
- Jane Clayson
This segment aired on June 4, 2018.