tv [untitled] May 30, 2012 10:00pm-10:30pm EDT
shoulders of giants," and i was so happy to hear him say that because as ernie said and others have said, black people have been struggling for equality since they were brought over here in chains, and it built and it built, and as i was writing my book about the students who actually did change the minds of the kennedys, i had to go back to all of those people in the naacp and other organizations who had been quietly working since those guys came back home, including my father, who was in the truman army, who held the heads of black soldiers who were shot on the battlefield and yet they couldn't come back home even injured and enjoy any of the privileges of the other whites. so all of that had been going on and germinating and simmering so when these young people hit the streets starting in greensboro
in 1960 when they sat in at the lunch counters, that unleashed young people all over the south and eventually in the north because in order to get the attention of the kennedy administration they got white kids from the north to go and study non-violent protests in i think it was ohio and some of them went south to do sit-ins and demonstrations, et cetera. some of them were sent to washington because they were white and they thought that they could get the attention of the white administration, with a couple of exceptions here to protektd those young people demonstrating for equal rights in the south. all of this happened as i applied to the university of georgia. i don't think it was necessarily the school desegregation stuff at that point, when i entered in
'61 it was the first successful desegregation of higher education at that point in the south and robert kennedy came to my college, university of georgia in 1971, and the desegregation was given by a white judge, william boodle and kennedy came in may of '61 to speak at the law day ceremony, and by this time the consciousness of the administration had been raised to a certain extent and so the state representatives, none of the top officials of georgia would attend because they were afraid of what bobby kennedy would say. here i was one of two black students on a campus of 20,000 who had rioted when we went into
the university, but that calmed down after three days. we didn't have to have ernie's troops come in. [ laughter ] so ken i did coming and i really want to hear what he has to say especially since all of these georgia laegtd tours were so concerned about what he was going to say. so i spoke to a sympathetic professor, most of whom didn't speak to me at that point, but he did, and so he got me into the room, and sure enough, he started with the whole notion of the cold war. that was his context for saying that you have to obey the federal laws. and then -- and i wrote about this in my first book. i was sitting in the -- somewhere, you know, invisible, in the class, a room of maybe 200 or 300 students, and all of a sudden i heard -- bobby
kennedy had talked about how the south had helped deliver his brother, and a few other things. i think i quoted part of the speech in my book. and then i heard him say, because i'm just sitting there saying, oh, this is very interesting, cold war, soviet union, communism, democracy, and then he said, the graduation of charlayne hunter and hamilton holmes from this university will be a major step in our war against communism and the soviet union and communism. and i said, excuse me? at which point i was no longer invisible, because everybody turned around and looked at me in the room. and then he went on to articulate in the clearest terms, i think, that any federal official at that level had done to say, that the primacy of federal law will be supreme in this country. and you're going to have to obey the law, whether you like it or not.
at which point there was sort of rumbling and mumbling. and when he finished, i think i was probably the only person who stood up, maybe hamilton holmes, the other black student. we were applauding wildly, and so i said to my professor, i have to meet this man. he said, come with us. afterwards at the reception, i was introduced to him, and he just -- you know, it was very sort of friendly, you know, nice to meet you. and i said, i like what you had to say about that communism thing. and he sort of smiled. and that was -- but that was in -- that was in 1961. up to that point, these young people, when john lewis left howard university on a trailways bus to go on the first freedom ride, he left his will behind. because he thought that there was a real possibility -- and he
was right, he wasn't killed, but chaney and goodman were. and those young people left their wills behind. trying to get the attention of the federal government to get these states to uphold the law, which went back to the boynton decision. and maybe even before. you lawyers can help me with this. it's in this book, but i can't remember all of that. the book. [ laughter ] but there had been decisions going back to the '40s that ruled out segregation on interstate commerce. but there was still segregation on the buses. the blacks still had the back seat. the freedom rides were aimed at forcing the federal government, not to create anything new, but to enforce the law. and it took these young people,
fearless and ready to die, in order to get the attention of the federal government. and even once they did, i mean, there were little -- you can read about it in my book -- no, but it's true. because i did research that i didn't even know in order to explain the role of young people in making america live up to its promise of equality for all. and we talk about martin luther king. martin luther king didn't start the movement. he was one of many. and it was -- you know, there were tensions between these young people in snvc student on violent coordinating committee, and the naacp. naacp was upset because when these young people would get arrested, they would have to go bail them out and pay the money, but they didn't want to listen to the naacp in terms of how they were doing things. because naacp was gradualists. important, because they were
winning cases like the 1954 brown decision. but that was a slow process. these young people were saying, we've got to move faster. the 1954 supreme court decision said we're all separate and equal, with all deliberate speed. when i applied to university of georgia in 1959, that was four years later, there was no deliberate to speed. these young people were saying, the time is now. martin luther king said the time is right to do right. and so they forced even king to be more militant. when king got arrested in atlanta, protesting with the students, it was -- he didn't plan to get arrested. but he did. >> the black people in atlanta didn't expect it either. >> but there were a lot of black older people. and you had these schisms. because you had courageous black people ho had been fighting for
generations for equality. but you also had those who had been tormented and beaten and killed and all kinds of -- when they looked for goodman, chaney and schwerner and found them some 40 days later in the river, in the process they found so many other black people who had been murdered and nobody even knew where they were. so things were going on, even before king and rosa parks, and they deserve all the credit. but all of those unknown giants on whose shoulders president -- then candidate obama said, there were nameless people fighting. but the young people in the south, in the '60s, were the ones who forced the kennedy administration to do what was right. and ultimately they did. >> so let me talk about what became a signal event of young people that pushed john f. kennedy to then get this civil
rights legislation through. and you've mentioned the freedom riders and their incredible story. but i want to broaden out the question in this way. how did a man, who during his campaign, harris wofford, who said, praise the sit-ins you referred to. he said, if you've got to go for freedom, sometimes you have to sit down. i'm paraphrasing his quote. how does he go from there to appointing segregationist judges, upsetting roger wilkins and being pushed, pushed, pushed until the freedom ride with the brutality visited upon those freedom riders really made him move to do something in terms of concrete legislation? >> in the first place, it isn't just the kennedys that had to be moved, public opinion had to be moved. southern legislators had to be removed or moved. and charlayne, i want to read the book. i'm sure i'll love it.
>> oh, you will. >> i recommend you read it. >> you can buy her book. >> i will buy it. >> okay. [ laughter ] >> the documentary on american experience documentary that's been shown and re-shown recently -- >> "the freedom riders" is by stanley nelson. you should see it. it's an excellent movie. >> kennedy did, after the first sit-ins, he sent a message saying, the new way -- you've shown that the new way to stand up for your rights is to sit down. now, why were -- did they make -- they rapidly learned the mississippi judge was a terrible mistake. i want to then say, charlayne brought onto the stage here robert kennedy. because he's a crucial part of
all the questions we've asked so far. he called essentially all the signals on civil rights while his brother was alive. the president looked to him for civil rights. not to me at all in that sense, or to louie martin. he looked to his brother, robert. his brother, robert, by the way, liked very much dealing with the uncle of roger wilkins, who -- when i went to see the uncle, head of the naacp -- >> roy wilkins. >> roy wilkins, he said, don't let it take you all the way to lbj. but he said, harris, if i'm honest, i will tell you that the one person who i think has fire in his belly, because of what he's seen in the south, to end it, is lyndon johnson. and then he said, but don't worry, he said, my wife is not only a roman catholic, but passionately in love with john kennedy, and she wouldn't sleep with me if i didn't support john
kennedy. you can see why kennedy had an affinity toward roger's uncle. robert kennedy -- [ laughter ] robert kennedy, berth marshall is the key person, assistant attorney general for civil rights. one of the wisest people i ever knew. was very cautious, very concerned with making federalism work. as you know, if you followed the dealings with governor wallace on the dealings with the governor of mississippi, and getting the -- mr. greyhound to carry the bus to the next stage and seeing it through, and seeing the -- all the force of the federal government through. they did everything they could to get the local police and the local government to -- >> harris, why was the freedom rider that violent? why was that such -- >> it isn't just the freedom
riders, it's all the sit-ins. it's the four little girls in birmingham being killed. it had an enormous impact. it's the fire hoses and the birmingham experience. all of that changed them from not having civil rights as a top priority. john kennedy's draft of the -- of his inaugural address, after this campaign, to the great disappointment of louie martin and me and many others, in the first draft that we saw two days before he gave it, had no reference to civil rights. now, we didn't notice then, because we were focused on civil rights. he had no reference to any domestic issue whatsoever, until louie martin and i got two words added at the last minute. "at home." the quote we heard at the
beginning of the day, we're going to support, committed to human rights at home and around the world. it was about 24 hours before he spoke that he added "at home." his main interest in life until then had been foreign affairs. wrote a book about it in 1920 why england slept. i never had any doubt that he wanted to end segregation, but i had plenty of doubt as to what priority he would put until the protest movement in blood on too many occasions stirred him, which is a huge historical fact. >> i've got a couple of -- >> one quick thing. >> i've got a question -- >> the media. i've been a moderator, too. >> give me one second. i'm going to let you say it, but hold on one second. i've got to move this, because we've got questions here. i need to get a couple of conclusions that need to be made here so people can follow this. one is that, so what you have said is he came cumulatively,
after all these incidents happened to move toward civil rights, moving away from foreign affairs as his priority. i understand that. >> so did his brother. >> got that. all right. >> but for different reasons. >> let me just finish. okay? so that people who don't know the history understand, that after the brutality was made on the freedom riders, is when he made his famous speech to america saying this is a moral issue. the first time a president said that. this is a moral issue. this then put into place the push for legislation. now you may speak. >> it follows on to you, because i have to say that it was the activism of the young people and some of the older ones, but it was also media. because it was the -- and this is what -- and you see it goes back to this foreign thing. it was still the cold war. and when those kids got on that bus -- and i have a picture of
them in this book -- [ laughter ] -- with the bus burning, and then sitting on the road choking to death from the smoke, it was the first time that the international media got onto this story. and that's when the world got involved in this. and that's where the foreign issue of, again, the cold war took place. and one final thing, and i'm finished. they still were reluctant to support those students, and it was the maneuvering of the kennedys, they secretly got the voter education project to fund a voter registration drive so that they could stop these embarrassing to them and the world activities of the movement, and although some of
snik was very much opposed to it, but that's when the kennedys moved the civil rights activists over into voter registration. and you still had a lot of violence, but it wasn't the same kind of overt demonstrations like you have with the freedom riders and the sit-ins. so you still had the kennedy administration slowly being -- trying to manipulate something to their advantage so that they would look better in the eyes of the entire world over and against the soviet union and communism. >> one more thing before you speak, roger wilkins. and that is just to put a button here to follow the history because it has said, kennedy and johnson, we have not mentioned his name, in passing, is that to say that when he pushed the civil rights in 1964 legislation through -- >> johnson you're talking about? >> no, kennedy. and then after he died, it made it possible then for president johnson to be able to push forward the 1965 voting rights act, and the '64 civil rights
act, he had teed it up, in other words, at that point, based on his cumulative understanding of what was happening, based on the pressure from the streets andbased on the inside pressure from the administration, based on the understanding that there was an international force to be dealt with as well? and now you may speak, roger wilkins. [ laughter ] >> my mother told me there would be moments like this. [ laughter ] "don't be on a stage with colored women" that's what she said. [ laughter ] but the point that i would like to make is, that from inside, i don't tell the story often, but here we are in the down and dirty, so i'm going to tell you something. john lewis of snik was beaten by
officers on horseback and trudgens in their hands. and they really beat him. and i always believed from those years that john was the bravest man i'd ever seen in my life. with just unbridled courage. and a quiet man. not a flash, not a big shot. and at a small meeting in the attorney general's office, the attorney general's name was nicholas belleville katzenbach. i think he had been a professor
at chicago law school, university of chicago. in any event, all the leaders in the department of justice who were involved in race at the time this conversation took place, because it was about the freedom riders, it was about kids thrown into parchment prison in mississippi. it was the hard time. and the attorney general of the united states looked up and quipped, well, you know, some people say that john's been hit on the head so many times, he just doesn't have any sense anymore. and there were some people who tattered and laughed. i was the only black person in the room.
and i said, nick, that's just wrong. that is just -- you can't say that, and you can't think that. these are american citizens. they want their rights. they're doing what americans should do. and you shouldn't denigrate them that way. oh, i didn't mean it, roger. i didn't mean it. and as we were walking out, his pr man said to me, congratulations. i said, congratulations for what? i didn't win nothing in there. he said, you got black people -- you got nick to discuss black people as human beings, not as legal specters out of the old books.
it wasn't terrible in the administration, but it wasn't easy either. and you really had to go after it, and you had to go after it hard. and you had to go after it to keep the faith with ernie. i didn't know ernie. well, i did, too, a little bit. but i didn't know ernie. you had to keep the faith. brave children. and the united states government is not prepared to move all forces on this kind of stuff? so, period. >> okay. the incident in which john lewis was beaten on horseback was in selma, alabama. it was the voting rights campaign. he is now congressman john lewis, for those who don't know. i have some questions here, beginning with professor mack.
you noted that both president and robert kennedy were comfortable around african-americans. to what would you a tribute the level of comfortability displayed by both, especially robert kennedy, who often rallied in urban neighborhoods and traveled to south africa, et cetera? >> one thing, not to discount about both the president and his brother, is that they came from boston. needless to say, it was a place where there were many white people who were not comfortable around black people. that would be an understatement. and they were. it's hard to say why that's so. but there are many things in which we can be maybe less than satisfied with the early years of the kennedy administration. but that's one thing that distinguished them from many people who were around them here in massachusetts.
and certainly distinguished them from most of the predecessors in federal office. so i don't know where it comes from. i would say robert kennedy probably felt it more. back to the time when he was -- he went to the law school at the university of virginia, of course, which was a southern law school and i think he had a confrontation, i think it was the president of the university over racial segregation at the university of virginia. so i think robert kennedy clearly felt it. john kennedy felt it in a certain way, too. and even though they didn't always do as much as they might have, that feeling that the ability to interact socially with black people was something that they had. and they thought it was a moral
issue. that black people couldn't get served at a lunch counter. it just seemed inconceivable to them. and certainly that's part of what finally moved the president to condemn segregation in moral terms in the middle of 1963. >> i think you also have to say that the difference -- the change in robert kennedy was enormous. made enormous by the murder of his brother. he really became a different kind of person. and the one thing i'll say, as i said to marion elman, who was a black woman who was doing very good civil rights movement in mississippi. when robert kennedy started
running for the senate -- i don't remember what he was running for, but she supported him. marion supported him. and i said, marion, why do you support robert kennedy after all the stuff we've had with him? she said, roger, we were down in a very poor place, a poor black place in mississippi. the black people were so poor, and the kids were dirty and they were -- they just kind of were gooey. and he came in there, and he walked around and he picked up those children and he patted their heads and he gave them water and he held them to his chest. she said, i wouldn't do that. she said, and that's why i'm for him. and when marion said that, that's a good thing. >> is there not a dichotomy between those who have many responsibilities and who must be elected, i.e., presidents, and
those who are pushing the issues, i.e., the ghandis, as those championing as those you would want them to? >> the answer is yes. i was present when kennedy -- you know the joke about franklin roosevelt being persuaded, some big move needed to be made, and he said, i agree with you completely. now go out and force me to do it. >> that's a good one. >> kennedy didn't say that. i was present when he gave the bad news in a private session with king. that they would not be introducing civil rights legislation in the first congress, contrary to the platform. and it was a major moment. and for a long time they argued reasonably. king never made kennedy
comfortable. roy wilkins did, though roy wilkins may have pushed harder than king did. it was a remarkable exchange on just the point you made. kennedy said, look, we know there's no chance for the bill to move. the southern opponents have far, far more votes to keep a filibuster. and make it impossible to pass. to push it now would lose our capital for the civil rights idea, and for ourselves. it doesn't make sense. so we need to do everything we can do to short of legislation. and king pressed for a new emancipation proclamation that would be across the board, a set of actions of the boldest kind. and kennedy wasn't ready for it. when we left, kennedy said -- i mean, martin luther king, as we went out of the white house grounds, he said, you know, i