Socialist Worker

Robert Kennedy’s hypocrisy on display in new TV show

A new documentary glosses over uglier truths, but shows how Robert Kennedy was forced to acknowledge the Civil Rights Movement, says Antony Hamilton

Issue No. 2603

Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy


On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination it’s a shame that Netflix has instead shone the spotlight on the man who ordered the FBI to investigate him.

Robert Kennedy was born the 7th child in the incredibly wealthy Kennedy political dynasty. During his political career he moved from the head of the department for justice, in which he was criminalising black protesters, to opposing the Vietnam War and arguing for desegregation in the US South.

After the assassination of his brother John he threw himself into the race for president.

The title sequence sets the tone for the series. Jazz blares over progressive slogans, Kennedy’s silhouette in every shot is in the image of a rock star on stage.

From the opening of the first episode it seems the entire project was to paint Kennedy as a Democrat demi-god. He is portrayed as someone who always strived for success and won, recognised his responsibility to poor people and was adored and regularly mobbed by his supporters.

There was a danger this series could have been a whitewashing of history by trying to tell the story of desegregation through the eyes of the white political elite of the 1960s. However, halfway through the first episode we are told the stories of the Freedom Riders.

Leaders of the Civil Rights movement, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were reluctant to work with Bobby Kennedy because of his dedication to the McCarthyite witchhunt of Communists.

However, its members feature in the series discussing their change of heart after discovering Bobby Kennedy had made a personal call to free King from jail after a sit-in in Georgia.

At the time racist Southern Democrats were threatening “to throw our votes to Nixon”, the Republican presidential candidate.

This contradiction was at the heart of the Democratic Party through the 1960s. Bobby Kennedy walked the tightrope, holding the conservative South on his side while trying to curry favour with civil rights leaders.

Pressure from below pushed Bobby into voicing support for the movement.

Elected 

After a call from Kennedy got King out of jail black votes swung to the Democrats. JFK was elected president. One of his first acts was to make Bobby US attorney general—head of the department of justice.

Kennedy’s ruthlessness seemingly knew no bounds. He ordered wire-tapping, opening mail, garbage collections, raids and the suppression of civil liberties.

He even signed the order to wire tap King, which was happily carried out by FBI head J Edgar Hoover. Hoover described all black leaders as Communists and would later label the Black Panthers as the biggest threat to US security.

The huge pressure of the Civil Rights Movement exploding onto streets all across America forced Bobby to act.

He first called for black people to stop protesting and sit down for discussions, saying that the right way to change legislation was in the courts.

This changed when he received a call from King and agreed to send military protection to a meeting supporting the Freedom Riders.

The brutality of the violence they faced forced Washington to act and the movement carried on with help from a tenuous relationship of relying on Washington’s guns.

Strangely, this series doesn’t look into the many allegations of the Kennedy family’s links with organised crime.

Nevertheless, I’d recommend everyone to watch it for an understanding of the contradictory relationship at the top during the Civil Rights movement.

Bobby Kennedy for President is a biographical mini-series on Netflix.com

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