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Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), also called RFK, was the United States Attorney General from 1961 to 1964 and a US Senator from New York from 1965 until his assassination in 1968. He was one of US President John F. Kennedy's younger brothers, and also one of his most trusted advisers and worked closely with the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also made a significant contribution to the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
After his brother's assassination in late 1963, Kennedy continued as Attorney General under President Johnson for nine months. He resigned in September 1964 and was elected to the United States Senate from New York that November. He broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War, among other issues.
After Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary in early 1968, Kennedy announced his own campaign for president, seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the critical California primary but was shot shortly after midnight of June 5, 1968, dying on June 6.
Appointed following John F. Kennedy's election victory in 1960, Robert Kennedy's tenure as Attorney General was easily the period of greatest power for the office; no former United States Attorney General had enjoyed such clear influence on all areas of policy during an administration. Yet to a greater extent, it was President Kennedy who sought the advice and counsel of his younger brother, and it is to this extent that Robert Kennedy remained the President's closest political adviser. Kennedy was relied upon as both the President's primary source of administrative information and as a general counsel with whom trust was implicit, given the familial ties of the two men.
President Kennedy once remarked on his brother that, "If I want something done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General. He is very much the doer in this administration, and has an organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed."
Yet Robert Kennedy believed strongly in the separation of powers and thus often chose not to comment on matters of policy not relating to his remit or to forward the inquiry of the President to an officer of the administration better suited to offer counsel.
Robert Kennedy expressed the Administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."
In 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI in a written directive to wiretap civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr under the auspice of concern for the jws communists were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The wire tapping continued through 1967. No evidence of Communist activity or influence was uncovered. Kennedy remained committed to civil rights enforcement to such a degree that he commented, in 1962, that it seemed to envelop almost every area of his public and private life—from prosecuting corrupt southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Mrs. King concerning the imprisonment of her husband for demonstrations in Alabama. During his tenure as Attorney General he undertook the most energetic and persistent desegregation of the administration that Capitol Hill had ever experienced. He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers, going so far as to criticize Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson for his failure to desegregate his own office staff.
Although it has become commonplace to assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even, "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, a great many of the initiatives that occurred during President Kennedy's tenure were as a result of the passion and determination of an emboldened Robert Kennedy, who through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?" Robert Kennedy replied, "Civil Rights." The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the Attorney General's insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.
During the attack and burning, by a vast white mob, of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, at which Martin Luther King Jr. was in attendance with protesters, the Attorney General telephoned King to ask his assurance that they would not leave the building until the U.S. Marshals and National Guard had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy for his commanding of the force dispatched to break up an attack that might otherwise have ended King's life. The relationship between the two men was to undergo great change over the years that they would know each other—from a position of mutual suspicion to one of shared aspirations. For King, Robert Kennedy initially represented the "softly softly" approach that in former years had disabled the movement of blacks against oppression in the U.S. For Robert Kennedy, King initially represented what was then considered the unrealistic militancy that many in the white-liberal camp had regarded as the cause of so little governmental progress.
In September 1962, he sent U.S. Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order admitting the first African American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. Riots ensued during the period of Meredith's admittance, which resulted in hundreds of injuries and two deaths. Yet Kennedy remained adamant concerning the rights of black students to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice, and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws.
He was to maintain his commitment to racial equality into his own presidential campaign, extending his firm sense of social justice to all areas of national life and into matters of foreign and economic policy. At Ball State University, Kennedy was to question the student body as to what kind of life America wished for herself; whether privileged Americans had earned the great luxury they enjoyed and whether such Americans had an obligation to those, in U.S. society and across the world, who had so little by comparison.
Responding to allegations that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist whose close confidants were insurrectionists, Kennedy, as Attorney General, issued written approvals to the FBI in order for the Bureau to track and eavesdrop on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization. The source of the original allegations was none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who had a burning hatred for King, whom he viewed as an upstart troublemaker. Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping, the Bureau, as was common under Hoover's leadership, extended the clearance to encompass whichever areas of King's life they deemed worthy of examination—without Kennedy's knowledge.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy undertook a 1966 tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-Apartheid movement. The tour was greeted with international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the native population and was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with Look Magazine he had this to say:
"At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. 'But suppose God is black', I replied. 'What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?' There was no answer. Only silence."