Robert F. KennedyU.S. Federal Government Brookline, MA
Robert F. Kennedy became Attorney General in January 1961, after his brother John F. Kennedy won election as President of the United States. Robert Kennedy had given a speech expressing the administration's support of civil rights to a Southern white audience a few days after the start of the Freedom Rides on May 6. However the issue was not yet a major priority for a Kennedy White House preoccupied with Cold War politics.
Caught off guard by the violence that erupted during the May 14 Anniston, AL bus burning and the riot at Birmingham Trailways Bus Station, Robert Kennedy dispatched special assistant John Seigenthaler to Birmingham, AL to aid the embattled CORE Freedom Riders. Seigenthaler helped arrange a plane flight from Birmingham to New Orleans, LA. Robert Kennedy sought protection for the Riders by Alabama state officials like Gov. John Patterson, with limited success, eventually sending in U.S. Marshals to protect the Riders during the May 21 siege and firebombing of the First Baptist Church.
Kennedy's avowed wish was for a "cooling off" period, in which civil rights leaders pursued voting rights issues rather than conducting violence-provoking direct action that embarrassed the United States on the world stage. He struck a compromise with Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, allowing the Riders to be jailed in exchange for the Riders' safety, explaining that the Federal Government's "primary interest was that they weren't beaten up."
On May 25, 1961, Robert F. Kennedy delivered an idealistic radio broadcast for Voice of America, defending America's record on race relations to the rest of the world, insisting that "there is no reason that in the near or the foreseeable future, a Negro could [not] become President of the United States."
Just four days later, on May 29, he formally petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt "stringent regulations" prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. The proposed order, issued on September 22 and effective on November 1, removed Jim Crow signs in stations and ended segregation of waiting rooms, water fountains, and restrooms in interstate bus terminals later that same year, giving the Freedom Riders an unequivocal victory in their campaign.
The Freedom Rides campaign was an opportunity for the Kennedy brothers to begin building a rapport with civil rights leaders through phone conversations, meetings, and cautious collaborations. These ties to the Civil Rights Movement would only deepen in the coming years.
In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected as U.S. Senator for New York. He was assassinated on June 5, 1968 while he campaigned for President.