The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)

Robert Kennedy, the third son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born in Massachusetts, and educated in New York and Massachusetts. Kennedy served in the navy from 1944 to 1946 before graduating from Harvard University in 1948. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1951.

Thereafter, he worked for the Department of Justice until 1952 when he left to manage his elder brother John's campaign for the U.S. Senate. After his brother's victory, Kennedy worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy becoming chief counsel for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1955. In 1957, he was named chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field. Known alternatively as the McClellan committee (for its chairman John McClellan, an Arkansas Democrat) or the Rackets committee, the group investigated corruption in the nation's labor unions with special emphasis on the role of organized crime in labor racketeering. Kennedy's relentless pursuit of such high profile individuals such as Teamsters' President James Hoffa and the subsequent book he wrote about his experiences established his reputation as a tough investigator who would pursue the truth wherever it led.

As much as Kennedy enjoyed his work, his primary loyalty was to his family. As he had done in 1952, he put aside his own career to manage John Kennedy's 1960 run for the White House. After his victory, John Kennedy, in a highly controversial act, named Robert attorney general. As the nation's principal law enforcement officer, Kennedy became a central figure in the rapidly developing civil rights struggle. Although cautious in racial matters and wary of the movement's implications for his brother's administration, Kennedy used the power of the federal government against segregation. He sent 500 federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders (African Americans and whites trying to integrate buses and bus terminals in Montgomery, Alabama) when local opponents attacked them. He also sent federal troops to quell the mob violence that ensued when an African American, James Meredith, was admitted to the all-white University of Mississippi in 1962. When Alabama governor George Wallace refused to permit the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce the federal district court's desegregation order. Despite his determination to enforce the law, Kennedy remained wary of the civil rights movement and its leaders. For reasons still unclear he permitted the FBI to wiretap the home and offices of Martin Luther King Jr. as a means of determining whether or not King and his associates had ties to the Communist Party.

Besides his legal responsibilities, Kennedy also functioned as the President's closest advisor. One historian has compared their relationship to that between Franklin D. Roosevelt and his close associate, Harry Hopkins. "Like Hopkins, Robert Kennedy did and said things the president could not, tested the water in places the president could not step and served as his eyes and ears in councils where the president could not go." In that capacity, Robert Kennedy played a key role in many of the crises facing the Kennedy Administration, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where his ability to work Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at a critical juncture helped resolve the most perilous crisis of the Cold War. Shaken and disoriented by his brother's assassination, he nevertheless accepted Lyndon Johnson's request that he remain attorney general; but the two men had always disliked each other and Kennedy soon left.

Determined to continue his brother's vision, Kennedy re-entered public life. In 1964 he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York and won by a margin of more than 700,000 votes. Once elected, he initially focused on issues of social reform and increasingly came to identify with the poor and disenfranchised. Among his accomplishments was the founding of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Corporation to rebuild one of New York City's worst ghettos. He also reached out to members of minority groups and formed relationships with many of their leaders including Cesar Chavez, head of the National Farm Workers Union. Increasingly, however, he was drawn into the debate over the Vietnam War.

After spurning those Democrats who wanted him to challenge incumbent Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy abruptly changed course after Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) won the 1968 New Hampshire primary on an antiwar platform. Deciding that it would be better to split the Democratic party rather than allow McCarthy to end his presidential hopes, Kennedy announced his intention to seek the party's presidential nomination on March 16. Two weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term, paving the way for vice president Hubert Humphrey's run. The resulting campaign was a three-way race with McCarthy running as an outsider, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey lining up party regulars, and Kennedy barnstorming the country. Between April and June of 1968 he won four presidential primaries (Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota and California) and lost one (Oregon). On June 4, 1968, the night he won California's primary, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. He died two days later.

Source: American National Biography Online. Internet on-line. Available From

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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