Kennedy, Robert F. (1925–1968) (Update)

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KENNEDY, ROBERT F. (1925–1968) (Update)

Robert Kennedy was named attorney general of the United States in 1961 by his brother President john f. kennedy. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Virginia Law School, he had served as counsel for Senate committees in the 1950s and acquired a reputation as an able and relentless prosecutor. His appointment was ascribed to nepotism and provoked widespread criticism.

Kennedy surrounded himself with an exceptionally able group of lawyers, headed by Archibald Cox of the Harvard Law School as solicitor general and by byron r. white, later of the Supreme Court, as deputy attorney general. In time, he won general respect for capable, humane, and nonpolitical administration of the Department of Justice.

The major challenge was the enforcement of civil rights statutes and decisions. Robert Kennedy brought about the end of segregation in interstate transportation and used government intervention, including federal marshals, to support black students seeking entry to the University of Mississippi (1962) and the University of Alabama (1963). Civil rights activists criticized the Justice Department for segregationist appointments to the southern bench and for unwillingness to assume local police power in protection of civil rights workers. The problem of federalism and civil rights caused Kennedy anguish, but he believed that local governments had primary responsibility for law enforcement and feared the implications of a national police force.

The key to racial justice in his view was voting: "From participation in the elections," he said, "flow all other rights." Department of Justice lawyers fanned out across the South to fight voting rights cases. In 1963, after outrages in Birmingham and elsewhere in the South, the Kennedys submitted a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress. The civil rights act of 1964, passed after President Kennedy's assassination, was the most far-reaching civil rights statute since reconstruction.

Like all attorneys general from 1920 to 1970, Kennedy had the problem of j. edgar hoover, the autocratic and increasingly tendentious chief of the federal bureau of investigation (FBI). Kennedy required the FBI to hire black agents, to reduce its obsession with communism, and to move into such neglected fields as civil rights and organized crime.

Kennedy personally argued the case of gray v. sanders (1963), in which the Supreme Court struck down the Georgia county-unit system and affirmed the principle of one person, one vote. He secured provision of counsel and reform of the bail system in the interests of indigent defendants, and his Committee on Juvenile Delinquency laid the foundation for the War on Poverty in the later 1960s.

He also played a role in foreign affairs but as the President's troubleshooter, not as his legal adviser. The Central Intelligence Agency covert action that the younger Kennedy promoted against Fidel Castro's Cuba, like all covert action, violated international law. During the Cuban missile crisis, however, he opposed a surprise air strike on Cuba, observing that "a sneak attack was not in our traditions." After serving nine prickly months as lyndon b. johnson's attorney general, Kennedy resigned and ran successfully for the Senate from New York. He was assassinated in 1968.

As attorney general, Robert Kennedy, though not a legal technician himself, had a high appreciation of technical legal ability in others, sought impartial enforcement of domestic law, gave new impetus to the movement for racial justice, and organized one of the strongest Departments of Justice in recent times.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.


Navasky, Victor 1971 Kennedy Justice. New York: Atheneum.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. 1978 Robert F. Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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Kennedy, Robert F. (1925–1968) (Update)

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