The Baldwin-Kennedy meeting (May 24th 1963) was when Robert Kennedy met James Baldwin to talk at length about race in America.
- Robert Kennedy – president’s brother, Attorney General. He brought:
- Burke Marshall – the government’s top civil rights person.
- Also: Ed Guthman
- James Baldwin – writer. He brought:
- Lorraine Hansberry – playwright;
- Jerome Smith – called “Gandhi Two” for his commitment to nonviolence. CORE, Freedom Rider;
- Clarence B. Jones – Martin Luther King, Jr’s lawyer;
- Kenneth Clark – psychologist.
- Lena Horne,
- Harry Belafonte,
- Edwin C. Berry (Urban League),
- June Shagaloff (NAACP),
- Rip Torn (white actor from Texas),
- Henry Morgenthau III (television producer),
- Robert P. Mills (Baldwin’s literary agent, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine),
- David Baldwin (brother),
- Thais Aubrey (David’s friend),
- Baldwin’s lawyer,
- Baldwin’s secretary,
- young SNCC activist.
This was just after the Birmingham protests – fire hoses, dogs, Bull Connor, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, all of that.
Kennedy said Negroes were listening to dangerous extremists, like Malcolm X, which could cause real trouble.
Jerome Smith: “You don’t have no idea what trouble is. Because I’m close to the moment where I’m ready to take up a gun. … When I pull the trigger kiss it goodbye.”
Baldwin, to underscore Smith’s pacifism, asked him if he would fight for America in Cuba.
Smith: “Never, Never, Never!”
Kennedy: (shocked) “How can you say that?!”
Clark was shocked that Kennedy was shocked.
Smith “just put it like it was. He communicated the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro. … You could not encompass his anger, his fury, with a set of statistics.” (in Horne’s words.)
Kennedy was getting redder and redder. He reminded Smith of the seriousness of military obligations.
Smith said that being in the same room with Kennedy made him want to throw up.
Kennedy turned away from him.
Hansberry: “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a white America can offer, and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets.”
Kennedy told them how hard it was for his Irish ancestors when they arrived in America a hundred years ago. He said maybe in 40 years there will be a black president.
Baldwin: “Your family has been here for three generations. My family has been here far longer than that. Why is your brother at the top while we are still so far away? That is the heart of the problem.”
Jones (or Smith) said the president should escort black students to the all-white University of Alabama: “That way it will be clear that whoever spits on that child will be spitting on the nation.”
Kennedy and Marshall laughed.
Kennedy: “It would be meaningless moral gesture.”
Hansberry: “We would like from you, a moral commitment.”
Marshall spoke of “special men” in the FBI who protected civil rights workers. This produced almost hysterical laughter.
Kennedy could not talk to them the way he could talk to Dr King. They stood up, orated, cursed, cried. They were emotional, hysterical, “possessed”.
After three hours it ended in exhaustion. Kennedy was not getting it.
This account is pieced together from what Kennedy, Baldwin, Hansberry, Kenneth Clark and Lena Horne later said. They disagree somewhat on the order of events and who said what. Main sources:
- YouTube: James Baldwin Interview with Kenneth Clark (1963) – Baldwin, Clark and Morgenthau left the meeting and recorded this interview. Baldwin and Clark refer to the meeting several times. Some of what Baldwin says echoes what Hansberry and Smith said.
- Village Voice (1963)
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy and His Times” (1978)
- James Baldwin, “The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings” (2010) – in which he recalls the meeting in “Lorraine Hansberry at the Summit”, a piece he wrote in 1979.
- Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63” (1998)
- Susan Sinnot, “Lorraine Hansberry: Award-Winning Playwright and Civil Rights Activist” (1999)
- Herb Boyd, “Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin” (2008)
- Wikipedia (2013)
- Other accounts of the meeting:
- 1963 – the 100th year after the Emancipation Proclamation:
- April-May: Birmingham protests
- April: Martin Luther King, Jr: Letter from Birmingham Jail
- May: this meeting
- June: assassination of Medgar Evers
- August: March on Washington, 1963
- September: The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
- November: Malcolm X: Message to the Grassroots
- November: assassination of President John Kennedy
- Not at the meeting
- white privilege mindset
- Joshua Solomon – finds out what it is like to lose white privilege
- Sheltered White Men
- The bootstrap myth
- darkies – black people are happy! Except when they are not, in which case they are oversensitive ingrates! Heads I win, tails you lose!
- ENT: Emotional Negro Thinking
- You cannot “prove” racism to most White Americans
- How to talk to white people about racism