Professor writes new book on how Robert F. Kennedy shaped civil rights

Philip Goduti
Philip Goduti
Nov. 26, 2012 - Robert F. Kennedy doesn't get all of the credit he deserves for advancing the civil rights movement in the United States.

Philip Goduti, an adjunct professor of history, sets out to prove that point in his latest book, "Robert F. Kennedy and the Shaping of Civil Rights, 1960-1964."   

"Bobby Kennedy is a compelling figure in U.S. history who was somewhat pushed to the sidelines after his brother's assassination," Goduti said. "He gets overlooked and almost marginalized in the history of the civil rights movement. This book is about how Bobby Kennedy, in the early 1960s, helped to change America's mindset, which eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964."

Goduti's new book takes readers from the late 1950s, before John F. Kennedy was elected president, and examines the evolution of John and Bobby Kennedy, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and John Lewis during a turbulent, often violent, period in American history.

"Racism was rampant in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s," said Goduti, who earned a bachelor's degree in history from Quinnipiac in 1997. "When all of these men met on the national stage in the early 1960s, it was fascinating. The combined efforts of the Kennedy brothers and civil rights leaders paved the way for future civil rights legislation by changing the atmosphere in the nation to one of acceptance and opportunity for African Americans and other minority groups. The election of 1960 set the Kennedys, King and Lewis, among others, down a path to evoking that change on the national stage."

During the hotly-contested 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, civil rights emerged as a hot-button issue that came to a head in October when King was arrested during a sit-in at Rich's lunch counter in Atlanta and later jailed for a motor vehicle violation.

King's incarceration prompted the Kennedys to take action.

"JFK called King's wife, Coretta Scott King, to show his support, which Nixon did not do," Goduti said. "Bobby Kennedy went as far as calling the judge in the case to ask that he set a bond for King. That move brought JFK the African-American vote and helped him win the closest election in American history. Before that time, African-Americans tended to vote Republican because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln."

For Robert Kennedy, who was appointed attorney general by his brother in 1961, civil rights became a moral issue. "He was willing to go the extra mile to help minorities gain their civil rights," Goduti said. "As attorney general, he didn't bow down to segregationists. He used the law and made it his foundation to combat segregation."

Attorney General Kennedy assisted the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights leaders who rode buses into segregated areas in the south, after learning that they had been beaten and their buses burned in Alabama. Kennedy arranged an escort for the Freedom Riders to help ensure their safe passage.

In 1962, James Meredith, a writer and political adviser, attempted to become the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith used the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which said publicly funded schools must be desegregated, to gain acceptance.

Attorney General Kennedy assisted Meredith by calling Gov. Ross Barnett, who eventually allowed Meredith to attend the university, according to Goduti, who was able to listen to recordings of Kennedy and Barnett's conversations during his research for the book.

"Those conversations were a turning point for Robert Kennedy," Goduti said. "Barnett played this cat-and-mouse game with the Kennedys and tried to stave off desegregation using a variety of tactics. Robert Kennedy became frustrated and even more steadfast to make a difference in this area. It was through this experience that civil rights moved from a political issue to a moral issue for Robert Kennedy who subsequently influenced his brother to push for a civil rights bill.

The following year, after the University of Alabama was integrated, President Kennedy addressed the nation and announced he would send a civil rights bill to Congress. Five months later, Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, a political rival of Robert Kennedy, became president.

"Bobby and LBJ didn't get along," Goduti said. "Bobby didn't want LBJ on the ticket when John Kennedy ran for president in 1960. Bobby was a moralist, while LBJ was the consummate politician."

When Johnson won a full-term as president in 1964, Bobby Kennedy traded in the attorney general's post for a U.S. Senate seat representing New York. That same year, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

"The passage of the civil rights bill fueled the charge for women's rights, the emergence of Latinos and gay rights," Goduti said. "These issues are all about civil rights. Take away religion, emotions and what people think, it all boils down to civil rights."

Goduti said his fascination with the Kennedys stems from his own Catholic upbringing - JFK was the first Catholic elected president - and the many summers his family spent on Cape Cod, where the Kennedys have a family compound.

"The Kennedys were the first people I learned about in history class in school," Goduti said. "That period of the 1960s was a watershed moment in American history. I see it as an amazing time in this country's history and that's what draws me to it. Bobby Kennedy was the real deal. I believe he would have gone on to do some great things had he been elected president."