Less than three years after the Watts Riots, New York Sen. Robert F Kennedy was on the presidential campaign trail in South Los Angeles. During his motorcade along Central Avenue, he witnessed burned-out buildings and empty lots, some of which appear today. That Monday, June 3, 1968, two residents Ronald Cole, 8, and Edward Clay, 9, decided to join the Kennedy craze. This is their story:
Ronald Cole remembers being dismissed from school early, “so we would have plenty of time to prepare for the motorcade. My teacher Mr [Hank] Gentry told us to be careful because there’s going to be a lot of excited people there, so make sure you do not get knocked down or lost in the crowd. I remember using my mothers sewing pins to secure the cardboard sign to a broomstick. I stuck myself several times while building it.
“When I got home my brothers and I decided to make signs up to welcome RFK,” Cole said. “ We were joined by a neighbor, Edward Clay, who also decided to attend the rally with us. Edward was a real prankster and I thought it was weird that he was going to attend. After assembling our billboards my brothers and I walked around the corner with my mother and we were joined by Councilman Gilbert Lindsay his wife, Theresa, and other neighbors..
“As we stood on the corner of 52nd Place and McKinley Avenue, I remember all of a sudden people began to scream and yell ‘here he comes.’ He (RFK) looked very tired. I believe he had a black suit on white shirt, no tie. He appeared so exhausted I believe he was being supported by two people as the truck pulled up. I remember Rosey Grier being in the rear of the truck.
Riding with RFK
“Edward Clay tapped me and said, let’s get in. As Edward and I moved up to the truck, I remember being lifted up by someone who may have been one of his security detail. I am not sure who got in the truck first; I just remember seeing my mothers swollen hand waving bye to us. My mother had rheumatoid arthritis and her joints would swell up on her fingers, allowing me to distinguish her hand from the hundreds of other hands waving.
“As we rode along the parade route, I remember RFK’s hands being reddish; he was moisturizing them prior to stopping again. We were waving to classmates as we rode bye and Edward Clay was on his best behavior–my biggest fear was that he was going to do something to get us in trouble and we would face a long walk home. He was known for his funny outrageous behavior.
“The ride was exciting, however no one inside the bed of the truck spoke, it was a strange type of quiet. Quite different from the crowds that lined the streets.”
So enthusiastic were the crowds who swarmed around Kennedy’s motorcades in Latino and Black neighborhoods, campaign aides feared he would lose White votes if he became overly identified with the aspirations of ethnic minorities, according to an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times (LAT) June 4, 1968. The article described RFK’s hands as being bloodied with scabs as a result of the handshaking.
Cole’s description of RFK looking very tired and possibly being supported by two staff makes sense. The day before the election, Kennedy embarked on his most strenuous single day of campaigning. He traveled more than 1,200 miles, and hit each of the state’s three media markets. He rode in motorcades through clogged streets in Los Angeles, then flew north to San Francisco for a tour through Chinatown and the neighboring environs, and back down to San Diego for yet another long motorcade into the evening. He had been brought to the brink of physical collapse after eighty-five days of little sleep and non-stop campaigning. He had unleashed a very tactile street politics.
‘Everyone appeared exhausted’
That may have also explained Cole’s description of a “strange type of quiet.” Everyone appeared exhausted.
Edward Clay said he remembers getting this crazy idea to catch a ride in the motorcade and become a part of the excitement. He had convinced his neighbor, Ronald, to follow him and they were both lifted up by Kennedy staff members as the motorcade stopped and allowed RFK to greet Councilman Lindsay.
Clay laughs as he describes their final destination: “It was Victory Baptist Church, and I had just been banned from the church by Rev. A.A. Peters for horseplaying during a school program held at the church called “Religious Relief.” I think Rev. Peters would refer to me as a ‘Black demon’ based on my behavior.”
“His face went flush when he saw me as one of the two kids in the truck wit RFK,” Clay remembered.
The following Tuesday evening, all of the joy and excitement of seeing Kennedy turned to sorrow as he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel.
Bobby Kennedy had forged a meaningful relationship with African Americans years before his death. In a hastily convened meeting. which could have easily been dubbed “Harlem meets Hickory Hill,” there they were 1963 in the drawing room of Joseph P. Kennedy’s palatial Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. James Baldwin, at the request of then U.S. Attorney General Kennedy, pulled together a dozen African Americans to discuss one-on-one at the highest level of government the bubbling cauldron of rage building up in Northern ghettos and the unending racial discrimination against Blacks taking place in the South and what the New Frontier was doing about it.
Martin Luther King wasn’t invited. Nor where there representatives from the NAACP or Urban League because, reportedly, Kennedy wanted a “no-holds-barred” critique of the Administration’s leadership on civil rights. He had hoped for a sober discussion of what his brother, President John Kennedy, should do about the centuries-old issue of American racial discrimination. Kennedy listed his brother’s accomplishments in advancing Black civil rights, explaining that they were groundbreaking and warning that the politics of race could be a troubling proposition, particularly in approaching the 1964 reelection campaign. The meeting was also an opportunity for Kennedy to get the “nitty gritty” on why so many young African Americans were being drawn to the radical ideology of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as opposed to the policy of passive resistance espoused by King.
‘And when I pull the trigger’
“He called the meeting in hopes of persuading us that he and his brother were doing all that could be done,” recalled the late singer/actress Lena Horne. “The funny thing was that no one there disputed that. It was just that it did not seem enough. He said something about his family and the kinds of discrimination it had to fight. He also said he thought a Negro would be president in 40 years.”
Kenneth Clark, at the time Black America’s preeminent psychologist, had studies and statistics to put forward in effort to further document the nation’s racial divide…but he never got the chance. Instead, a young firebrand named Jerome Smith couldn’t hold back any longer: “Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care about you or your brother. I don’t know what I’m doing here, listing to all this cocktail party patter.” Smith explained to Kennedy that the real threat to White America was not coming from the Nation of Islam or Black radicals in general but, rather, it was when advocates of non-violence (like him) had become fed up. They’d lost hope. “When the police come at me with more guns, dogs and hoses, I’ll answer with a weapon of my own. And when I pull the trigger, kiss it good-bye.”
A stunned Kennedy was further dismayed when Smith said he would never, ever go to Cuba, Vietnam or any other place where the Kennedy Administration saw threats. “You won’t fight for your country?,” Kennedy asked. He’d already lost one brother and nearly a second during World War II. “How can you say that?” Others began to chime in, shifting the focus back to racist laws and ghetto blight. Lorraine Hansberry, the acclaimed writer, was there and wanted Smith to speak more about the what young Black generation wanted via civil rights legislation.
“You’ve got a great very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” Hansberry said in pointing toward Smith.
Baldwin looked in admiration toward Smith. He didn’t fit in with high society as did the majority of Blacks at the meeting. Nor was he the stereotypical “angry Black male” in his plea to be heard. Smith was speaking for the voiceless and disenfranchised, a portion of the body politic that Kennedy up to that point had never truly heard from norembraced.
‘Our honor and dignity’ are at stake
“He didn’t sing or dance or act,” Baldwin is quoted. “Yet he became the focal point. That boy, after all, in some sense, represented to everybody in that room our hope. Our honor. Our dignity. But, above all, our hope.”
Kennedy had heard enough and as the meeting disbanded, he asked Harry Belafonte, whom he’d considered a loyal friend: “Harry, why didn’t you say something?” Belafonte recalled the meeting years later and said, “If I’d said something, it would affect my position with these people, and I have a chance to influence them. If I sided with you on these matters, then I would become suspect.” Red-faced and frustrated, Kennedy reportedly turned away and grumbled “enough.”
Kennedy reflected on the meeting in an excerpt from the 1988 book “Robert Kennedy In His Own Words”: “We could see the direction going away from Martin Luther King to some of these younger people, who had no belief or confidence in the system of government that we have here. [They] indicated that up in the apartment in New York City that the way to deal with the problem is to start arming the young Negroes and sending them into the streets—which I didn’t think was a very satisfactory solution, because, as I explained to them, there are more White people than Negroes. And although it might be bloody, I thought the White people would do better.”
After being elected to the United States Senate (New York), Kennedy in 1967 visited the Mississippi Delta at the request of Marian Wright, at the time a civil rights attorney. He brought along a delegation of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty and saw firsthand the extent of the poverty and malnutrition that the poor in Mississippi had endured. After visiting a family of sharecroppers in a ramshackle dwelling, television cameras captured a visibly shaken Kennedy emerge ashen-faced as he patted a little Black boy on the head and addressed reporters. Those images near Greenville, Miss. reflected the conclemation and dismay that Kennedy experienced at the discovery of such a horrifying level of neglect and destitution in modern America.
Bridging the racial divide
“We didn’t sit down and wring our hands and shake our heads, and have meetings about how awful it was about the Negro in Mississippi. That didn’t occur until after [Jack] became president, other than saying, “Aren’t they bastards!”—or something— “to be treating [citizens] like that,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, to a certain extent, was admittedly clueless about race relations when he became Attorney General. But as he witnessed the Freedom Rides in being called upon to protect young protesters trying to integrate buses traveling through the Deep South (and even more during the race riots at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama), it was clear that appeasing arch-segregationists by delaying the use of federal troops only emboldened the racists. Kennedy would learn to stand up against racists leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, launch crusades against joblessness and hunger, and by 1966 had used his Senate seat to pioneer anti-poverty programs from the Mississippi Delta to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, at the time America’s most populated ghetto. These unexpected revelations encouraged Kennedy’s future visits to other pockets of poverty throughout the nation.
Kennedy was a late entry into the 1968 presidential campaign. Just five years after the Manhattan meeting, Kennedy was in Indiana for the first of the big primary tests in his improbable presidential run when he received word of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. An outdoor rally was planned but he had to quickly change from campaigning to consolation as he addressed the diverse audience which reflected the growing coalition of supporters from coast-to-coast who believed he was the right choice for the presidency:
“I’m only going to talk with you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some—some very sad news for all of you…Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.” As the audience gasped and shouted “No, No,” Kennedy continued: “For those of you who are Black and are tempted to filled with—be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all White people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a White man. What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be White or whether they be Black.”
Merdies Hayes contributed to this story.