The Baldwin–Kennedy meeting of May 24, 1963, was an attempt to improve race relations in the United States. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ("RFK") invited novelist James Baldwin, along with a large group of cultural leaders, to meet in a Kennedy apartment in New York City. The meeting was emotional and the group reached no consensus. The black delegation generally felt that Kennedy did not understand the full extent of racism in the United States.
After formally abolishing slavery, the United States maintained a racist society through Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic inequality. This racism became increasingly apparent due to many well-publicized non-violent direct actions.
As the Birmingham campaign (and Birmingham crisis) brought negative attention to urban racism in the US, RFK wanted to prevent similar unrest from taking place in northern cities. Baldwin was reportedly already in contact with RFK on the topic of Birmingham, calling for an investigation into the role of the FBI and other federal agencies.
Baldwin, already a popular novelist, had recently gained additional fame by virtue of The Fire Next Time, a book of two essays urging action against racism in America. Baldwin had become an iconic Black American, and Kennedy sought him out for advice on how to improve race relations. Kennedy had met Baldwin in 1962 at a Nobel Prize dinner. The two met briefly in May 1963 at Hickory Hill, but Kennedy had to leave early. They agreed to meet again, with a group of cultural leaders assembled by Baldwin.
- David Baldwin, James Baldwin's brother
- Harry Belafonte, singer and activist
- Edwin C. Berry, director of the Chicago Urban League
- Kenneth Clark, psychologist, activist, and founder of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited
- Lorraine Hansberry, playwright best known for A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
- Lena Horne, musician, actor, and activist
- Clarence Benjamin Jones, advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights lawyer
- June Shagaloff, a White NAACP official (attending in an "unofficial capacity")
- Jerome Smith, Freedom Rider associated with the Congress of Racial Equality
- Rip Torn, a young White actor
The mood quickly became tense. Jerome Smith, Baldwin later said,
set the tone of the meeting because he stammers when he's upset and he stammered when he talked to Bobby and said that he was nauseated by the necessity of being in that room. I knew what he meant. It was not personal at all. ... Bobby took it personally. Bobby took it personally and turned away from him. That was a mistake because he turned toward us. We were the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the Black community. Lorraine Hansberry said, "You've got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there."
Kennedy and Smith began to argue. Kennedy was particularly shocked when Smith said he would "never never never" join the military to fight against Cuba for the USA. The assembled group felt, generally, that Kennedy did not understand the depth of the problem at hand.
Hansberry told Kennedy: "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 ... and chaos."
Kennedy said that his family, immigrants from Ireland, suffered discrimination upon arriving in America but now had achieved the presidency. He told the group that the US might have a Black president in 40 years. Baldwin observed that his family had been in the country for much longer.
Kennedy later said: "They seemed possessed. They reacted as a unit. It was impossible to make contact with any of them."
Jones and Belafonte approached Kennedy in private after the meeting to thank him for his work on civil rights. Kennedy, upset, asked why they hadn't stood up for him during the meeting. They, reportedly, said that defending him would have been politically untenable for them.
Despite feeling emotional and overwhelmed in the aftermath of the meeting, Baldwin and Clark arrived (half an hour late) to a television studio, where Clark interviewed Baldwin on tape.
"We were a little shocked at the extent of his naivete", Baldwin was quoted as saying. "We told him that though the Kennedy administration has done some things the Eisenhower administration never did, its actions have yet to affect the masses of Negro people."
After the meeting, Kennedy ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance of Baldwin and others present. A memo issued four days after the meeting asked the FBI to produce information, "particularly of a derogatory nature". A subsequent report labeled him both a "pervert" and a "communist". Rip Torn discovered that he also had been placed under surveillance after the meeting.
Baldwin also says he suffered retaliation from the State Department, including interference with his passport.
To his biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy said ("his voice filled with despair"):
They don't know what the laws are—they don't know what the facts are—they don't know what we've been doing or what we're trying to do. You can't talk to them the way you can talk to Martin Luther King or Roy Wilkins. They didn't want to talk that way. It was all emotion, hysteria—they stood up and orated—they cursed—some of them wept and left the room.
Schlesinger and others nevertheless describe the moment as a long-term turning point in RFK's attitude towards the Black liberation struggle. Revisiting the issue of military service, Kennedy later asked the Senate Judiciary Committee: "How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, 'When war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you're a citizen of Mississippi—and we can't help you'?"
- James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire
- March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
- African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–68)
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 89–90.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 330.
- "Kennedy Blamed By Baldwin", New York Times, May 13, 1963; accessed via ProQuest May 21, 2013. "LOS ANGELES, May 12 (AP)--James Baldwin, Negro novelist, visiting here for integration rallies, cabled Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy today, blaming J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Senator James O. Eastland, Democrat of Mississippi, and President Kennedy for the turmoil in Birmingham, Ala. Among other things he asserted that the President had "not used the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be."
- Staffordshire, Historical Guide (2009), p. 47.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 90–91.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 331.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), p. 91.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), pp. 331–332.
- Staffordshire, Historical Guide (2009), p. 48.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 92–93.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 332.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), p. 93.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 333.
- Goduti, Robert F. Kennedy and the Shaping of Civil Rights (2013), p. 192.
- The Negro Protest; Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.
- Solet, Sue. "Negroes shocked by Robert Kennedy's 'naivete'." Washington Post, May 25, 1963. Accessed via ProQuest.
- Layhmond Robinson, "Robert Kennedy Fails to Sway Negroes at Secret Talks Here", New York Times May 26, 1963; accessed via ProQuest May 21, 2013.
- Talia Whyte, "Baldwin: A literary standard", Black History 43 (27), February 14, 2009.
- James Campbell, "James Baldwin and the FBI", The Threepenny Review 77, Spring 1999; accessed via JStor.
- W. J. Weatherby, "Mr Baldwin and the spooks: Letter from America", The Guardian, September 20, 1988; accessed via ProQuest May 21, 2013.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 334.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 335.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 94–95.
- *Edwin O. Guthman & Jeffrey Shulman, Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words (New York: Bantam, 1998), p. 65.
- Goduti, Philip A. Robert F. Kennedy and the Shaping of Civil Rights, 1960-1964. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. ISBN 9781476600871
- Saucedo, Todd. The Fire Within: The Baldwin Meeting and the Evolution of the Kennedy Administration's Approach to Civil Rights. Masters' Thesis, University of Central Florida, 2004.
- Schlesinger, Arthur Meier. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1978. ISBN 9780618219285
- Staffordshire, Douglas Field. A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780199710669