Robert F. Kennedy may go down in history as an Attorney General of the United States who oversaw some of the most crucial and important issues of the 1960s. Appointed by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, the choice made for an interesting controversy in that, many felt RFK had little or no experience and would not be effective in such a demanding position. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Kennedy gained significant experience conducting investigations and questioning witnesses as a Justice Department attorney and Senate committee counsel and staff director throughout the 1950s.
As attorney general, Kennedy pursued a relentless crusade against organized crime and the Mafia, sometimes disagreeing on strategy with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800 percent during his term. Kennedy worked to shift Hoover’s focus away from communism, which Hoover saw as a more serious threat, to organized crime. According to James Neff, Kennedy’s success in this endeavor was due to his brother’s position, giving the attorney general leverage over Hoover.Biographer Richard Hack concluded that Hoover’s dislike for Kennedy came from his being unable to control him.
He was relentless in his pursuit of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, due to Hoffa’s known corruption in financial and electoral matters, both personally and organizationally. The enmity between the two men was intense, with accusations of a personal vendetta – what Hoffa called a “blood feud” – exchanged between them. On July 7, 1961, after Hoffa was reelected to the Teamsters presidency, RFK told reporters the government’s case against Hoffa had not been changed by what he called “a small group of teamsters” supporting him. The following year, it was leaked that Hoffa had claimed to a Teamster local that Kennedy had been “bodily” removed from his office, the statement being confirmed by a Teamster press agent and Hoffa saying Kennedy had only been ejected. In 1964 Hoffa was imprisoned for jury tampering. After learning of Hoffa’s conviction by telephone, Kennedy issued congratulatory messages to the three prosecutors.
But it was Kennedy’s role as Attorney General during the Civil Rights Movement that probably gained the most long-lasting attention. Kennedy played a large role in the response to the Freedom Riders protests. He acted after the Anniston bus bombings to protect the Riders in continuing their journey, sending John Seigenthaler, his administrative assistant, to Alabama to attempt to secure the Riders’ safety there. Despite a work rule which allowed a driver to decline an assignment which he regarded as a potentially unsafe one, he persuaded a manager of The Greyhound Corporation to obtain a coach operator who was willing to drive a special bus for the continuance of the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, on the circuitous journey to Jackson, Mississippi.
Later, during the attack and burning by a white mob of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, at which Martin Luther King Jr. and some 1,500 sympathizers were in attendance, the attorney general telephoned King to ask for his assurance that they would not leave the building until the force of U.S. Marshals and National Guard he sent had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for “allowing the situation to continue”. King later publicly thanked him for dispatching the forces to break up the attack that might otherwise have ended his life. Kennedy then negotiated the safe passage of the Freedom Riders from the First Baptist Church to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested. He offered to bail the Freedom Riders out of jail, but they refused, which upset him, leading him to call any bandwagoners of the original freedom rides “honkers”.
In September 1962, Kennedy sent U.S. marshals to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a federal court order allowing the admittance of the first African-American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. The attorney general had hoped that legal means, along with the escort of U.S. marshals, would be enough to force Governor Ross Barnett to allow Meredith’s admission. He also was very concerned there might be a “mini-civil war” between U.S. Army troops and armed protesters. President Kennedy reluctantly sent federal troops after the situation on campus turned violent.
Ensuing riots during the period of Meredith’s admittance resulted in hundreds of injuries and two deaths, yet Kennedy remained adamant that black students had the right to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws. Between December 1961 and December 1963, Kennedy also expanded the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division by 60 percent.
As a reminder of Robert F. Kennedy’s role as Attorney General, here is an interview/discussion broadcast by ABC Radio from their Issues and Answers series on April 22, 1963.