The Baldwin–Kennedy meeting of May 24, 1963 was an attempt to improve race relations in the United States. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited novelist James Baldwin, along with a large group of cultural leaders, to meet in a Kennedy apartment in New York City. The meeting became antagonistic 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. Ultimately the meeting demonstrated the urgency of the racial situation and was a positive turning point in Kennedy's attitude towards the Civil Rights Movement.
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 instances of police violence against nonviolent direct actions.
As the Birmingham campaign and Birmingham riot of 1963 brought negative attention to urban racism in the United States, Robert Kennedy wanted to prevent similar unrest from taking place in northern cities. Baldwin was reportedly already in contact with Kennedy 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 and briefly in May 1963 at Hickory Hill. They agreed to meet again, with a group of cultural leaders assembled by Baldwin.
According to Clarence Benjamin Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and participant in the eventual meeting, in May 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked novelist James Baldwin to organize a "quiet, off-the-record, unpublicized get-together of prominent Negroes" to discuss the state of race relations. The meeting took place at an apartment owned by the Kennedy family at 24 Central Park South in New York City.
- 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
- June Shagaloff, Education Director of the NAACP (attending in an "unofficial capacity")
- 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
- Jerome Smith, Freedom Rider associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
- Rip Torn, a young white actor
Jerome Smith was a young black civil rights worker who had been beaten and jailed in Mississippi. Edwin Berry brought him along, and his story was not known by Robert Kennedy or most of those in attendance. As the meeting got underway and Kennedy began to recount how the Justice Department had been supporting the civil rights movement, Smith suddenly began to weep "as if he'd just suffered some traumatic flashback" and said: "I've seen you guys [referring to the Justice Department] stand around and do nothing more than take notes while we're being beaten." The mood quickly became tense. 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.
In Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart, a documentary about Lorraine Hansbury which aired on the PBS series American Masters in 2018, Harry Belafonte recalled that at this point Smith "bared his soul and all his pain and then said very aggressively 'Let me tell you something, in the midst of our oppression you expect to find us giddily going off to fight a war (i.e., Vietnam) that's your war, that's unjust, unfair, and so dishonorable it should shame you. I wouldn't pick up a gun to fight for this country. I'd die first.'"
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". According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, "she talked wildly about giving guns to Negroes in the street so they could start killing white people." Jerome Smith told Kennedy: "I'm close to the moment where I'm ready to take up a gun."
Kennedy said that his family, immigrants from Ireland, had suffered discrimination upon arriving in America but were able to overcome their hardships to achieve political success, and that the U.S. might have a black president in 40 years. David Baldwin observed that his family had been in the country far longer than Kennedy's, yet had barely been permitted to climb out of poverty. Kennedy later said: "They seemed possessed. They reacted as a unit. It was impossible to make contact with any of them."
Though billed as off-the-record, details of the meeting were recounted a few weeks later in The New York Times in an article by James Reston about the Kennedy administration's approach to race relations. Reston's summary provides only Robert Kennedy's perspective on the meeting, offering his appraisal that the problem was one of both "militant Negro and white leaders" and stating that the attorney general "apparently has little faith in the quieter moderate leaders of both races."
As Clarence Jones served as the attorney representing Martin Luther King, Jr. at the meeting, he strongly disputed Reston's account of the meeting and issued a detailed, four-page letter to the editor of the New York Times, with copy to Robert Kennedy, providing his alternative assessment of the meeting. Directly challenging the perception given in Reston's coverage of the meeting, that "a lawyer for Dr. King had remained silent throughout the meeting (the implication being as a 'moderate' such a lawyer was intimidated from speaking)," Jones summarized four areas of discussion in which he had actively engaged with the Attorney General during the meeting.
Specifically, Jones notes that he had requested that the President personally accompany University of Alabama students as a way to help assure successful integration. He directed the Attorney General's attention to the appointment of certain judges by his administration who, in Jones' opinion, "had openly and avowedly, prior to their appointment, indicated their flagrant segregationist views." He raised the idea of the President making a series of televised speeches addressing the elimination of segregation and discrimination. Finally, he participated in the discussion of the role and effectiveness of some white Southern FBI agents in civil rights cases.
"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, Robert Kennedy ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance of Baldwin and tap the home phone of Jones. A memo issued four days after the meeting asked the FBI to produce information, "particularly of a derogatory nature." A subsequent report labeled Baldwin both a "pervert" and a "communist." Actor 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.
Harry Belafonte recalled Martin Luther King Jr. calling him the following day wanting to know the details of the meeting. When Belafonte described the "disaster," and Jerome Smith's "fighting words," King said "Maybe it's just what Bobby needed to hear."
Jones recalled Martin Luther King Jr. saying shortly after the dust-up, "Looks like the Attorney General of the United States regards you as an uppity Negro. But that's all right. We still love you. You're our uppity Negro."
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. Less than one month later, President Kennedy gave his landmark Civil Rights Address. Robert Kennedy was the only White House adviser to actively encourage his brother to give the speech, in which the president publicly proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Revisiting the issue of military service, Robert 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'?"
- 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.
- Jones, Clarence (2008). What Would Martin Say (First ed.). USA: Harper Collins. pp. 192–195. ISBN 978-0-06-125320-1.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 331.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), p. 91.
- Weingarten, Dwight (May 2014). ""To Thine Own Self Be True": Robert F. Kennedy, The Inner Cities, and the American Civil Rights Movement 1963-1968". College of William and Mary. Retrieved April 18, 2020., p. 22.
- Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the waters : America in the King years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-68742-7.
- Jones (2008). What Would Martin Say?. p. 193.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), pp. 331–332.
- Staffordshire, Historical Guide (2009), p. 48.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 92–93.
- Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart documentary website
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 332.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), pp. 332-333.
- James Hilty, Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (Temple University Press, 2000), p. 355.
- Tony Ortega "Miss Lorraine Hansberry & Bobby Kennedy" Archived October 18, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Village Voice, May 4, 2009.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), p. 93.
- Hilty (2000), Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector, p. 355-356.
- Reston, James (June 7, 1963). "Racial Peace Hope Up to Congress". New York Times.
- Jones, Clarence (June 7, 1963). "Letter to Editor of New York Times". The King Center. Archived from the original on February 3, 2015. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- A Conversation With James Baldwin, retrieved July 16, 2020
- The Negro Protest[permanent dead link]; 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.
- Alex Rawls "A Cocktail Party in 1963" Offbeat Magazine, January 16, 2012
- Jones, Clarence (2008). What Would Martin Say?. Harper Collins. p. 195.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 334.
- Goduti, Robert F. Kennedy and the Shaping of Civil Rights (2013), p. 192.
- Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), p. 335.
- Saucedo, The Fire Within (2004), pp. 94–95.
- Robert Schlesinger, "The Story Behind JFK's 1963 Civil Rights Speech", US News and World Report, June 11, 2013.
- *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