5 Things You May Not Know About RFK’s Role in Labor, Civil Rights Movements

Fifty years ago this week, Robert Francis Kennedy was shot and killed at a hotel in Los Angeles after delivering a speech celebrating his win in the California primary.  

Robert Kennedy was America’s 64th attorney general, senator from New York, and a presidential candidate whose life was cut short by his assassination. He was also President John F. Kennedy’s brother who as attorney general was involved in important foreign policy decisions.  

Not many people are aware that Robert Kennedy played a key role in the labor and civil rights movements at a time when America was embroiled in social and political crises at home and abroad. 

Here are five things you may not know about Robert Kennedy and his role in the civil rights and labor movements: 

  1. He sent in federal troops to escort a black man to enroll for a class in 1962.

Robert Kennedy was committed to the rights of African Americans to vote, receive equal education, and use public facilities. In 1962 when Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett blocked James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi despite a Supreme Court order directing that Meredith be admitted into the university, Kennedy as attorney general sent thousands of federal troops to Mississippi to enforce the Supreme Court’s order. The attorney general and the governor had had dozens of telephone conversations before the federal troops were sent in. His assistance was instrumental in getting Meredith enrolled.  

  1. He helped create the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to social justice. He worked with his brother President Kennedy and JFK’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson to create the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also outlawed racial discrimination in voting, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public facilities.  

  1. He broke bread with Cesar Chavez to help end Chavez’s hunger strike.

United Farm Workers Co-founder Cesar Chavez was determined to bring attention to the horrendous working conditions of migrant farm workers in California’s Central Valley. Union workers had held several strikes against grape growers, and Chavez was committed to nonviolence. When some of the frustrated strikers resorted to violent means, he responded with a hunger strike to refocus the movement to nonviolence. In March 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy flew to Delano to meet Chavez and break bread with him to help end his 25-day hunger strike.  

This was not their first meeting. Chavez and Kennedy had met two years earlier in Delano when the Great Delano Grape Strike had been raging on for six months. As a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, Kennedy was in California for hearings in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Delano to take testimony from both sides. Kennedy was impressed with Chavez and was deeply troubled by the workers’ conditions he saw. He became committed to their cause. 

  1. UFW Cofounder Dolores Huerta campaigned for him

Because of his support for the United Farm Workers, UFW Co-Founder Dolores Huerta campaigned on his behalf after he announced his presidential bid.  

“Robert didn’t come to us and tell us what was good for us. He came to us and asked us two questions. All he said was, ‘What do you want? And how can I help?’ That’s why we loved him,” Huerta said. 

  1. He was passionate about ending poverty and hunger in America 

 As senator, Kennedy traveled to America’s cities and towns to see first-hand the effects of poverty. His trips to Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Kentucky, migrant workers’ camps and others shaped his views about poverty and economic justice. In Mississippi, he was seen wiping away tears after meeting a malnourished child with a distended stomach in his family’s shack. Kennedy became passionate about helping end poverty and hunger in America.  

“They’re desperate and filled with despair,” Kennedy said. “It seems to me that in this country, as wealthy as we are, this is an intolerable condition. It reflects on all of us. We can do things all over the rest of the world but I think we should do things for people in our own country.” 

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