In May of 1963, James Baldwin had breakfast with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. RFK wanted to know why Black folks were so angry. Baldwin’s flight had been delayed, which only allowed them 30 minutes for this meeting. That obviously wasn’t enough time to get through the list, so they planned another meeting for the following day. RFK told Baldwin to bring some of his friends, people of influence.
The next day, Baldwin arrived at a Kennedy-family apartment in New York with 10 of his friends, including his brother, David Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith. The meeting lasted about three hours, during which RFK voiced many claims about what the Kennedy Administration was trying to do for Black Americans. He presumed these Black influencers were ignorant of those efforts and would react with appreciative deference upon receiving such holy information. But Kennedy’s expectation of a roomful of grateful Negroes was wholly dashed.
Instead, RFK was met with frustration and anger about his stereotypical, white-liberal condescension. Smith, a devout adherent to the philosophy of non-violence, told RFK that he and many Black men like him were on the verge of getting guns and going out into the street. Kennedy literally turned away from Smith, toward the more “respectable negroes” in the room, only to be faced with Hansberry. “There are a number of very prominent people in this room,” she said, “but the only man you should be listening to is over there,” and she pointed back to Smith.
The meeting ended with Baldwin and company astonished by RFK’s extreme white naivety, and RFK shocked (shocked) by the ungratefulness of the Black influencers. Days later, RFK directed J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, to surveil those same ungrateful Negroes.
What RFK seemed to miss was that laws alone mean nothing. They require a willingness to abide by them and an underlying belief in their purpose. They require a morality, a cultural push. Desegregating a racist restaurant may look good on paper, but without a common belief in the principle of equality, all you’ve done is made it easy for a racist cook to poison Black customers.
In the Long Hot Summer of 1967, violence exploded in more than 150 cities across the country. President Lyndon Johnson deployed 5,000 National Guard troops and created an 11-person advisory board to investigate just why Black folks were so gull-dern angry all the tootin’ time! The board, called the Kerner Commission, was led by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. and stacked with political centrists. Even so, the commission came back with a singular explanation for the explosions of Black anger: white racism. Pretty simple, pretty obvious and undeniable, even for a group of political moderates in the 1960s.
The Kerner Commission’s report recommended a host of significant steps, including the creation of new social programs and government departments, and sweeping changes in policing. Johnson jumped to it and did everything the report suggested and more!
Shocked – shocked that the report didn’t give him enough credit, LBJ largely ignored it and blamed his lack of action on budget constraints.
Sound familiar? Yeah. These are old stories, all too frequently repeated throughout the history of this country. White conservatives want to further racism and white liberals want to end it… right up until the liberals are confronted with racism’s realities. Then it’s time to ask more questions to which there are obvious answers, become indignant and hide behind budgets. It’s the same with virtually any social issue — it just so happens this particular one is especially persistent.
As you may recall, last summer large-scale demonstrations erupted all over this nation and the world, even in Portland, Maine. Activist groups here followed up those demonstrations by issuing lists of community needs, and several public hearings were held to discuss them. Naturally, city officials in Portland listened carefully to the activist groups and then enacted the necessary changes.
Instead, Mayor Kate Snyder and the City Council appointed a Racial Equity Steering Committee to make its own set of recommendations. The committee’s full report isn’t due until April, but an interim report has been issued. It contains several recommendations that, like the Kerner report, involve the creation of social programs and new government departments, and sweeping changes in policing.
According to the Portland Press Herald, Mayor Snyder said “it’s too soon to say which proposals she or the council may support, because some of the initiatives, such as creating and staffing new city departments, will cost money.”
Upon reading that news, I was — there’s no other word for it — shocked.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.