While it is still fresh in my mind, here are some notes from Lena Horne’s account of the meeting between James Baldwin and Robert Kennedy in 1963 in New York. She wrote about it in her 1965 biography. So did James Gavin in his 2009 biography of her.
The meeting did not start off well: Blacks sat on one side, Whites on the other (except for Rip Torn, a friend of Baldwin’s).
Kenneth Clark ran down the numbers of how bad it was for Blacks. Robert Kennedy, Attorney General and brother of the president, countered with all the things his brother had done for Blacks. While it was more than any president since Lincoln, it was too piecemeal. This was just weeks after the Birmingham protests, where police chief Bull Connor turned fire hoses and dogs on children.
Robert Kennedy acted like someone from a suddenly famous family. He seemed insensitive, expected gratitude. She was surprised at how little he understood what Blacks were going through. It seems he had not even read Baldwin or talked to anyone who had – why else would he compare being Black American to being Irish American, like it was pretty much the same thing?
Then Jerome Smith spoke. He was a civil rights worker with CORE, then in New York to see doctors about head and jaw injuries he received from racial violence in the South. Horne said he:
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.
Talking numbers and policy no longer seemed enough. Kennedy tried to shut Smith down. Blacks closed ranks behind Smith. After that the meeting became too divided and never recovered.
Rip Torn understood both sides and could have built a bridge, but all he talked about was his upbringing in racist small-town Texas, of his personal awakening. No one was in the mood to hear that stuff.
Kennedy would later complain that they did not understand how much his brother had done for Blacks. Horne says they did understand – otherwise they would not have shown up in the first place, would not have felt he was someone who would listen.
The meeting was a turning point for her: after that she took part in the civil rights movement, did whatever she could. She sang at a rally for Medgar Evers not long before he was killed – and found herself on the “Today” show on national television the morning after his death!
She felt like a figure from another age, a White man’s token – even though Hollywood had blacklisted her for her civil rights views and friendship with Paul Robeson.
Horne’s husband, Lennie Hayton, was White. Three weeks before the meeting they both saw the Birmingham protests on television. He seemed indifferent. Bull Connor’s shameless, terroristic violence against Black children did not move him. Apparently, he was so determinedly one of those race-doesn’t-matter White people that he could not see what the big deal was.
– Abagond, 2014.