“What Truth Sounds Like”: Michael Eric Dyson on New Book About RFK, James Baldwin & Race in America

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This month marks 50 years since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5, 1968, Kennedy was shot dead shortly after winning the California Democratic primary, a major boost in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His death came just two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and five years after the assassination of his own brother, President John F. Kennedy. We speak with Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson about his new book that looks at Kennedy’s evolution on civil rights. It is titled “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This month marks 50 years since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5th, 1968, Kennedy was shot dead shortly after winning the California Democratic primary, a major boost in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His death came just two months after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and five years after the assassination of his own brother, President John F. Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy’s record as a political figure is a complicated one. To many Americans, he came to embody the hopes of the civil rights and antiwar movements. But while serving in government, he played a major role in actions these movements fought against. As a young lawyer, Robert Kennedy was a key aide to Republican Senator Joe McCarthy on the notorious Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. As attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy signed the wiretap order authorizing the FBI’s spying on Martin Luther King Jr. On foreign policy, Robert Kennedy played a key role in U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro and was part of the inner circle of advisers that backed President Kennedy’s escalation of the bombing and destruction of Vietnam. But in his final years, Robert F. Kennedy became a vocal advocate for civil rights. This is Kennedy speaking in Mississippi in 1966.

SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: We must create a society in which Negroes will be as free as other Americans, free to vote and to learn and to earn their way and to share in the decisions of government, which in turn shapes their lives. We know to accomplish this end will mean great tension and difficulty and strife for all of us, in the North and in the South. But we know that we must make progress, not because it is economically advantageous, not because the law says that we should do so, but because of the fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert F. Kennedy speaking in Mississippi in 1966.

Well, we turn now to a new book by Michael Eric Dyson that looks at Kennedy’s evolution on civil rights. It’s titled What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. The book centers on a 1963 meeting Kennedy, then the attorney general, had with James Baldwin, the famed writer and civil rights activist, as well as other leading figures in the black community, including Lorraine Hansberry and actor and activist Harry Belafonte, singer and actor Lena Horne and psychologist Kenneth Clark. This is James Baldwin reflecting on the meeting.

JAMES BALDWIN: It was a great shock to me—I want to say this on the air—the attorney general did not know—

DR. KENNETH CLARK: You mean the attorney general of the United States.

JAMES BALDWIN: Mr. Robert Kennedy.

DR. KENNETH CLARK: Mr. Robert Kennedy.

JAMES BALDWIN: —didn’t know that I would have trouble convincing my nephew to go to Cuba, for example, to liberate the Cubans in defense of a government which now says it is doing everything it can do, which cannot liberate me. Now, there are 20 million people in this country. And you can’t put them all in jail. I know how my nephew feels. I know how I feel. I know how the cats in the barber shop feel.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Washington, D.C., to speak with Michael Eric Dyson, the author of What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, author of many books.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Always great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about where you begin the book, with the martyrs, and you place it at Dr. King’s funeral.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That’s right. I begin there talking about the blood of the martyrs soaking the soil of American reality. And then, from that soil of brutality, of death, of tragic and traumatic separation from these figures, these icons, who informed our values, our visions, our virtue of American democracy, I wanted to talk about how their deaths—Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy’s before his, Robert Kennedy’s after his—was a kind of traumatic trilogy of transformative deaths that made American values and ideals and struggles for justice that much more plain, that much more tangible, and yet, at the same time, it seems, that much more distant, because if we were willing to kill these men, for various reasons, in defense of bigotry and hate and blindness to American inclusion and diversity and justice, then we were further apart from those ideals than it seemed. But I wanted to start there to suggest that the meeting, that I subsequently explore, has to be seen in relationship to what they were willing to sacrifice for what they found out.

Bobby Kennedy, as you’ve already indicated, evolved. A once-fearless advocate for Joseph McCarthy, he ends up becoming a serious and considered and principled defender of and advocate for racial justice, but not without consternation, not without contradiction, not without complication. His relationship to Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, is quite interesting, because after that death, that I begin with, after that funeral, that I begin with, we remember that Bobby Kennedy spoke in Indianapolis, bravely, about the death of King. He announced to those black people in the hood what had gone on, against the advice of his advisers, who said, “It’s going to be tough. You’re going to the ghetto at this particular moment of the death of their foremost figure. It could be really treacherous for you and very perilous.” And he went on anyhow. He gave a brilliant speech, quoting the Greek classics and then talking about his brother’s death. But later that night, he said, privately, “This is not the worst thing”—that is, the death of King—”to happen to the American republic.” So, he was a very complicated figure.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that moment in Indianapolis, when Robert Kennedy has learned of the death of Dr. King, and he breaks the news to supporters as he tells them about King’s assassination.

SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust, of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert Kennedy, the night of King’s assassination, breaking the news to his own supporters in Indianapolis. Michael Eric Dyson, you were saying about that night?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: And that night, later on, after that remarkable oration, after that appeal to the Greek classics, after that appeal to his own personal suffering, his existential trauma, the remembrance of his brother’s death, which lingered above him like an angry cloud of grief, he said that night to aides, in a kind of dispassionate and nearly corrosive and, some would say, very callous manner, “Look, this death of King is not the worst thing to happen to the republic,” of course, remembering his own grief about his brother and knowing that these kind of traumas could be, you know, visited upon the nation from time to time.

But he had fights with Martin Luther King Jr., even though, after the meeting that I write about, he said, “Look, you can’t talk to Jimmy Baldwin and Belafonte or Lena Horne or especially Jerome Smith,” who was a Freedom Rider, the most decorated Freedom Rider, perhaps, along with John Lewis—they suffered both the most, physically beaten to within an inch of their life—of their lives, so to speak. But after that meeting, he said, “Look, you can’t talk to them like you talk to King.” And yet when he had the ability to talk to King, they were often verbal exchanges that were sometimes brutal, sometimes honest and difficult, and yet he ultimately committed to the very principles that motivated Dr. King. And Dr. King accepted that as the price to be paid in order to link arms to fight for justice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to that moment of the meeting. Talk about where it took place, who was there and why you centered your whole book around it.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right. Well, the meeting took place in New York, on Central Park, at the Kennedy penthouse, that belonged to the family, his father, of course, but it was in the family. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. had his first meeting with then-candidate for president Jack Kennedy, John F. Kennedy. So it was there that they met. They had met—”they,” being Bobby Kennedy and James Baldwin, met the morning before, when Baldwin flew out to Hickory Hill, after landing in D.C., then got driven out to Hickory Hill by Mr. Kennedy’s chauffeur, to meet with him in the suburbs of D.C. at his home, because he was attorney general. And they had a pleasant-enough meeting, very interested in each other. They expressed their interest in each other. And the plane for Baldwin had been late, so Kennedy said, as they packed up and went off to the city to go to another meeting, he said, “Look, I’m going to be in New York tomorrow. Why don’t you bring some of those people that we talked about that black people listen to?” He didn’t want to talk to King or Adam Clayton Powell or Whitney Young or any of the established leaders. He wanted to speak to people that, you know, had the ears of the people, so to speak. As the great philosopher Shawn Carter would say, “Streets was talking,” and who was—who was listening. So the reality is, is that he said, “Look, I got some people. Harry Belafonte, they listen to, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry.” And he happened to—they happened to be available. He got them together. He said, “OK, I’ll meet you tomorrow.” And they went to the penthouse.

And Bobby Kennedy, expecting to be treated with great deference, and certainly greeted with gratitude for the enormous contribution that he made, and especially his brother, to civil rights, but it was a checkered record. On the one hand, they were committed, in word, to the civil rights movement, and some things that Bobby Kennedy did as attorney general, trying to force J. Edgar Hoover to get a few more black people in the building, talking about voting as a linchpin to arguing for justice, but, at the same time, they put onto the federal bench Harold Cox, who called black people the N-word from the bench. They also promised Ernest Vandiver, then the governor of Georgia—that is, Mr. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, the president, when he placed a well-timed call to Martin Luther King Jr.'s jailers—well, he placed the call to the governor, because King was in jail in Georgia, and said, “Let him out. And, you know, it's something that’s harsh and unnecessary.” And he was let out. And a few days before he was let out—he was let out a few days before the election for the president of United States of America. And that boosted Kennedy’s numbers among black people who could vote. So, he promised that governor, however, that “I will not use federal legislation to enforce integration and desegregation in your state.” So he’s playing both ends against the middle.

So, when Bobby Kennedy shows up there, these very smart black people are aware of that. Jimmy Baldwin has just fired off an electrifying telegram—I know young people don’t even know what that is. It’s not Twitter, swipe right. It’s not Tinder. It’s not even rough. It’s not social media. It’s not even a stencil. He went there Morse-coding, or tap, tap, tap, and then communicating a message to the attorney general that we are outdone by the ghoulish behavior of the buffoonish and yet brutal Bull Connor—those are my words—who is down in Birmingham doing horrible things to black people, unleashing powerful fire hoses, washing them against the wall, the bicuspids and incisors of police dogs are snarling at the flesh of black women, men and children. And so, he said, “We’ve had enough.” So he fired that off. Kennedy responded. They have the meeting.

And Kennedy, expecting deference, instead got Jerome Smith, who said, “I’m tired of this. I’m tired of the pitty patter. And you’re worried about”—because part of the meeting was to figure out: Why is it that black anger is rising? Why is it that rage is on the rise? Why is it that black people are listening to the Black Muslims and not Martin Luther King Jr. or Roy Wilkins or Whitney Young from the Urban League and NAACP, respectively? Why are they being attracted to these voices from beneath? And so, Jerome Smith, who was a devotee of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the philosophy of nonviolence, said, “Don’t worry about the Black Muslims. They ain’t voting. They’re not going to get out here and do anything that’s going to bother you, ultimately, politically. But what you got to worry about is a guy like me, who’s a devotee of these principles, and I’m ready to take up a gun. I’m ready to go into the streets, because I’m tired of the injustice that we are enduring.” That was astonishing to Mr. Kennedy. It electrified the room. And he tried to pivot away from Jerome Smith to the “respectable Negroes.” The politics of respectability, after all, were not invented with Black Lives Matter.

And so, to her credit, it was Lorraine Hansberry who said, “Mr. Attorney General, there are a fair number of very prominent people in this room, but the only man you should be listening to is over there,” pointing right back to Jerome Smith. And therefore, even though he was angry, Bobby Kennedy said that we’ve got to find a way to work together. He said, “Look, I know you’re in despair. But I’m an Irish person, and two generations in, as an Irish family, we have a president of the United States of America”—speaking about his brother Jack Kennedy, to which Baldwin acidly and acerbically responded, “That’s the problem. We’ve been here for five and six generations, and there’s nothing to show for it in terms of political advance.” And then it went downhill from there. So, for three hours, Bobby Kennedy was virtually nailed to his chair, seething silently against the vicious and brutal expression of honest emotion.

And the reason I wanted to begin with this meeting is because it’s rare that white people have to listen to the agony, rage and pain of black people—don’t say anything, don’t speak back, don’t pipe up, just listen, feel a way to écoutez-moi, listen to me, figure out where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m struggling with, understand the rage, the pain, the anxiety, the trauma that we endure. And he sat there and listened. But he was very angry. And afterward, he went, as you already indicated, and sicced the FBI on the people whose dossiers had not yet been established by the FBI—a couple of them had been, but, for the most part, he got J. Edgar Hoover to check out who these people were. So, ironically enough, the great liberal scion and iconic figure was the very person who sicced the FBI on these people.

But when he calmed down, he said, “You know what? If I was black, I might be full of rage, too. I might have some of the same agony, too. I have to understand that.” And then, one of their major messages to him was: See race not as merely a political issue, but as a moral problem; use the bully pulpit to speak up and amplify the best interests, the best angels of American democracy, and then talk about that. And he did encourage his brother Jack Kennedy to give such a speech in June of that year, ’63, an amazing speech that talked about the moral accents, highlights and underscores of race, but especially morality in regard to race. And then Bobby Kennedy himself began to change his own outlook, began to talk to many more black communities, sometimes getting brutally assaulted verbally, sometimes with direct passion and rage. And yet he sat there, and he understood it, and he began to work with people, and he began to change his mind, to become much more empathetic and understanding of the conditions and the plight and predicament of not only black people, but poor people across this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to the great writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, speaking in 1963. Again, this is before the assassination of Malcolm X, before the assassination of Dr. King and before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy himself. This is 1963, right after that meeting he had with Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne and Robert F. Kennedy. This is Baldwin.

JAMES BALDWIN: A boy last week—he was 16—in San Francisco, told me, on television—thank God we got him to talk. Maybe somebody will start to listen. He said, “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag.” And he’s only 16 years old. And I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging, as most Northern cities now are engaged, in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal. That is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact. Now, this—we’re talking about human beings. There’s not such a thing as a monolithic wall or, you know, some abstraction called the Negro problem. These are Negro boys and girls, who, at 16 and 17, don’t believe the country means anything that it says, and don’t feel they have any place here, on the basis of the performance of the entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: James Baldwin in 1963. We’ll be back with Michael Eric Dyson, author of What Truth Sounds Like, in a minute.

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