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New book sheds new light on Bobby Kennedy

Brooklyn BookBeat: Details Late NY Sen.’s Visit to Bed-Stuy

July 7, 2016 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Larry Tye, author of “Bobby Kennedy — The Making of a Liberal Icon.” Photo courtesy of Larry Tye

“Bobby Kennedy—The Making of a Liberal Icon” offers a close look at the life and legacy of Robert F. Kennedy.  Author Larry Tye, a former health reporter at the Boston Globe, traces Kennedy’s transformation from the cold warrior he was at the start of his political life to the hot-blooded liberal he’d become by the end.

Tye includes a chapter detailing Kennedy’s visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1966, and his reaction to the poverty and racial injustice he witnessed.

What readers discover is Kennedy’s compassion, faith and intrinsic belief that he could make a difference. Kennedy’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on June 6, 1968 when he was only 43 years old. He had been the U.S. senator from New York for 3 1/2 years and had previously served as attorney general under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The author ponders the question of what this nation might have looked like if Kennedy had been elected president in 1968 instead of Richard M. Nixon.

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The following is an excerpt from the book:

To answer one of the great what-ifs of 20th Century American history – what would this nation have looked like if Robert F. Kennedy had been elected president in 1968 instead of Richard M. Nixon – we need look no further than the then-impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City. It offers a microscope to examine Kennedy’s preferred solutions to the problems of poverty and racial injustice that continue to plague America today, and form the centerpiece of this year’s painfully divisive presidential campaign.

Like most of Bobby’s good ideas, this one grew not out of a reasoned blueprint but a seat-of-the-pants sensibility that he had to try something, anything, to keep America’s ghettos from imploding. Young blacks felt so trapped that when an off-duty white police lieutenant in New York shot a fifteen-year-old Negro under disputed circumstances in the summer of 1964, the incident ignited race riots not just in Harlem but in Philadelphia, Chicago, Rochester, and Jersey City. Black parents were frightened, and so was nearly all of white America. President Lyndon Johnson responded with a set of New Deal–like education, health care, and welfare programs that he called the Great Society—lifting millions of Americans out of poverty, but not treating underlying social and racial ills. By the summer of 1965 the violence had spread to the West Coast, with the Watts district of Los Angeles going up in flames, leaving thirty-four dead. America seemed on the cusp of another civil war, this one pitting slum dwellers in the North and South against everyone else. At the end of his first year as a senator from New York, Bobby instructed Peter Edelman and Adam Walinsky, his closest and smartest aides, to formulate some new approaches.

Their suggestions formed the basis of three provocative speeches that he delivered to three very different gatherings in New York on consecutive days in January 1966. To an assembly of Jewish fundraisers, many of whom had abandoned their urban neighborhoods as blacks moved in, he insisted that integration—economic as well as racial, of neighborhoods, schools, and jobs—was essential “to assure that every American comes to know the full meaning of the truths that we held to be self-evident for the rest of America almost 190 years ago.” The next day he told a black audience to get realistic. Ghettos weren’t going away, but they could be made safe and livable if community leaders did less finger-pointing and more soul-searching. “None of this can happen,” he lectured, “unless you will it to happen, and unless you can and do make the hard and sometimes unpopular decisions which come with responsibility.” Speech three offered the most novel ideas to his most skeptical listeners, the mainly white members of the United Auto Workers union. Rather than battling with ghetto Negroes, Bobby explained, blue-collar Caucasians had to see their shared need for better education, better jobs, and a better life. “We are only at the beginning of a beginning,” he said in appealing for the black-white alliance that had become his obsession. If anyone other than a Kennedy had been saying those things, his audiences would have walked out before they finished their chicken à la king. He succeeded in jump-starting the discussion, with them and with the wider public, but it was still just words. Talking about something made Bobby eager to do it, especially when it involved repairing his world. So he handed Walinsky and Edelman two new assignments: Tell him what laws and programs were needed, and find a place to put those visions to a real-world test.

Thus was born the Bedford-Stuyvesant experiment, which aimed to recast America’s biggest ghetto into its most ambitious proving ground for slum busting. If change could happen in this 653-block neighborhood—known in Brooklyn as Bed-Stuy and invisible to the universe beyond—it might work anywhere, or so the senator had reason to believe. Bed-Stuy had rioted alongside Harlem in the overheated summer of 1964, but it lacked that neighborhood’s finances, clout, and renowned cultural ambassadors like Langston Hughes and Billie Holliday. Eighty-four percent of Bed-Stuy’s 450,000 residents were black, another 12 percent were Puerto Rican, and nearly a third of its families subsisted on $3,000 or less a year. No place in America had as high a rate of infants dying or toddlers being poisoned by lead. Whites, who fifteen years before had composed half the community, had fled in fright, with legend having it that one family on Hart Street was in such a hurry that they left their furniture behind. By the time the senator discovered it, said writer and activist Michael Harrington, “Bedford-Stuyvesant was on the well-greased road to economic and sociological hell.”

To Bobby, Bed-Stuy represented more than the sum of its afflictions. This son of Irish Boston hadn’t forgotten how an impoverished neighborhood known as Eastie had provided a launching pad for a onetime stevedore named Patrick Joseph Kennedy. In college, Bobby had collected rents at tenements owned by his father’s bank, and he came home with wide-eyed tales of how big families lived in four cramped rooms and slept on the fire escapes on hot nights. Bobby knew that in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the brownstones generally were solid and could be made elegant again, and that with one in five of them owner-occupied, residents had a stake in the community. Its history of neglect by federal, state, and local governments was to him another irrefutable argument for equalization.

Any doubts that this was the greenhouse where he should plant his seeds were erased when he walked the neighborhood’s streets one freezing afternoon in mid-February 1966. Neon signs offered loans and liquor. Forsaken cars rusted in front of boarded-up houses crawling with roaches, rats, and human squatters. Out-of-work fathers congregated on street corners while their children played outdoors in winter without coats. The journalist Jack Newfield, a Bed-Stuy native whose family left with the rest of the whites, remembered Bobby asking, “Show me the house where you grew up.” The structure was abandoned by then, the block drug-infested. Newfield: “What would have happened if you grew up on this block, Senator?” Kennedy: “I either would have been a juvenile delinquent or a revolutionary.” As for Newfield’s roots in the run-down neighborhood, Bobby said, “I’m jealous of the fact you grew up in a ghetto. I wish I did. I wish I had that experience.”

His ideas for attacking poverty weren’t revolutionary, but no other politician was so willing to contravene political orthodoxies. Washington would pay for training unemployed adults, constructing a cultural complex, and other classic liberal initiatives. Tax breaks would lure big business to build industrial plants and shopping centers, an idea that drew raves from the conservative standard-bearer William F. Buckley, Jr. And borrowing an approach from the New Left protest movement, local residents would exercise unprecedented self-governance. “We must combine the best of community action with the best of the private enterprise system,” Kennedy said. “We are striking out in new directions, on new courses, sometimes perhaps without map or compass to guide us.”

Integration remained the long-term goal, but Bobby knew that getting white businessmen to work with black activists was a nonstarter for now. So he set up side-by-side bureaucracies—an all-black corporation to run the jobs and cultural enterprises, and an all-white one to raise cash and recruit industry. The dual structures, the head of the blacks-only group later said, ensured “that at the first meeting of the board, if somebody said motherfucker, the white guys wouldn’t all get up and run.” It worked, with Bobby cajoling and charming onto his business board such titans of commerce as IBM chairman Thomas Watson and CBS chief William Paley. He put the community group in the hands of one of the city’s most promising black leaders, Franklin Thomas, who’d grown up in Bed-Stuy, served as New York City’s deputy police commissioner, and would later run the Ford Foundation. Bobby gave political credit to John Lindsay, the new Republican mayor of New York, whom Bobby despised but knew could undermine the enterprise. He let another Republican, Senator Jacob Javits, claim more credit than was deserved. And he devoted more time to this project than to any other in his adopted state, visiting three times a week and biting his tongue when Bed-Stuy leaders gave him a hard time. “We’ve been studied to death,” Elsie Richardson, a community activist, told him at the first neighborhood meeting in February. “The writers of sociology books have milked us of all the information.” Rather than getting defensive, as he had with Baldwin and Belafonte in 1963, Bobby sat quietly as he was harangued, then asked for a chance to prove himself. He agreed that too many studies had been done already, adding, “The fact is, there has to be coordination, direction and leadership.” Richardson, his most vocal critic, left the meeting saying she’d been won over by Kennedy’s “good intentions.”

The first initiative involved patching sidewalks, repairing iron gates, and repainting façades to make a difference that people could see. The project provided work for three hundred locals who were unemployed and, with criminal records ranging from drug offenses to murder, unhirable anywhere else. Residents responded warily when, in an effort to give them skin in the game, they were asked to contribute $25 to renovations valued at $325, keep their sidewalks clean, and buy garbage cans marked with a green R for restoration. But the organizers persisted, eventually signing up 98 percent of owners in the eleven-block test area. It spread from there, with twenty-two hundred units of housing built or renovated, twenty thousand people placed in jobs, and the neighborhood becoming more sanguine and stable. “Driving past the brownstones, savoring the calm of the place,” Harrington wrote in New York magazine, “one can see an immense and important fact: The blight of urban decay is not inevitable; there are alternatives. Something is happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant.”

In hindsight, the record looks mixed. The Kennedy initiative did lure an IBM plant that employed five hundred people, but rather than signaling a trend it remained an isolated case of an entrepreneur willing to invest in the ghetto. The Bedford-Stuyvesant mini-model helped spur federal and foundation funding for similar neighborhood-specific revitalization bids, and today thousands of community development projects nationwide can trace their roots to Bed-Stuy and to Bobby Kennedy. But it took half a century and New York’s changed demographics to remake Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the restoration still isn’t complete. The project’s most lasting effect wasn’t in bricks and mortar but in how Bobby and his collaborators helped change America’s thinking about poverty. Jobs mattered even more than education and housing, he said in what then was an avant-garde idea and today is accepted wisdom. So were the notions that control should be vested not in Washington but in communities like Watts and Harlem, with a public-private partnership the best way to draw funding. And he saw sooner than most that America’s racial challenge was no longer Southern segregationists but Northerners who were seldom in conflict with blacks because they almost never encountered them.

The senator understood from the first the limits of what he was trying to do in Bedford-Stuyvesant and other ghettos. “I’m not at all sure this is going to work,” he said days before unveiling his ideas. “Even if we fail, we’ll have learned something. But more important than that, something has to be done. People like myself just can’t go around making nice speeches all the time. We can’t just keep raising expectations. We have to do some damn hard work, too.”


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