A Profile in Leadership
Robert F. Kennedy
To preface this article, at a time in American history where effective and virtuous leadership is lacking, a leader like Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a breath of fresh air in a toxic swamp of gleeful and unabashed ignorance.
A great Statesman & American military leader Secretary Mattis, routinely, says to America’s future leaders in lectures & speeches that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The former 4 star General and NATO Supreme Commander advises young Americans to read history. Why? Because like Mark Twain wisely said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” And his over 7,000 book personal library at home proves he is looking for rhythms in American history.
Even though, it may all seem so distant and boring, the past is filled with human folly as well as human triumph; and human problems never seem to change much at their very core. Mattis wisely articulates the importance of reading history by asserting that ‘you stay teachable most by reading books, by reading what other people went through’. And similarly he commented, ‘thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed… It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.’ His wisdom and respect on the battlefield gave him the nickname ‘Warrior Monk’ from his soldiers, and, even today, he continues to garner respect in the realm of politics.
In celebration of this great advice by a stoic, virtuous, and truly patriotic American leader, here is a historical moment in American leadership that may give insight for today’s turbulent times on managing difficult situations on a national stage— were tensions are high and moral leadership is essential.
Robert F. Kennedy confronted numerous challenges during his time in government. One occasion accounts an essential lesson in leadership, moral courage, & effective decision-making — this was the desegregation of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa while he served as United States Attorney General under, his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
On a humid summer day in 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama was willfully disobeying the 1954 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483). That ruling declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. In reaction, Governor Wallace was refusing to allow two African American students, Vivian Malone & James Hood, from enrolling into the University of Alabama — dubiously asserting a state’s rights abuse of federal authority.
George Wallace was the classic southern politician, with a neat & orderly appearance including an aura of bravado and pomposity. He promised his constituents that he would act as a human barrier, and physically stand in front of the University’s Admissions Office doorway with the intention to block the students registration for summer classes. This was racist grandstanding and a national propaganda spectacle in order to pander to fellow segregationists across the state of Alabama and United States.
While the Governor was prepping his media circus and racist last stand, Robert Kennedy was pensively contemplating his alternatives. With his feet swung up on the desk at the Department of Justice, he debated in his informal style with close aides on how to avoid the violent rioting of segregationists that occurred a year prior, which took numerous lives at the University of Mississippi.
Bobby, as his closet aides, friends, & family affectionately called him, was the complete abhorrence in political etiquette to the southern political aristocracy. Much more than their distinct accents divided Kennedy and Wallace. The Attorney General was usually in his office pacing and throwing darts at a dartboard with his shirt sleeves rolled up, suit jacket tossed on a chair, and his dog, Brumus, glancing from the corner of the office. Scattered all across the walls were the paintings & drawings of his almost dozen children. He wasn’t in politics for style points — it was duty to his brother & country that emboldened his purpose.
The obvious chief decision-maker in this matter was President John F. Kennedy. The second oldest of eight siblings, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a socialite, intellectual, and war hero. Yet, he would rather have been an author or professor in international affairs and a lifetime bachelor than live the strenuous and public life that reality placed upon him. However, life propelled him to do what his father and country chose — to lead a nation. And his personality seemed highly adept to handle almost insurmountable pressure with steady reasoning and rhetorical genius. A measured thinker and decision-maker, the President would hold meetings were aides would debate scenarios and best options in clockwork fashion. The President would, usually, sit attentively in his beloved rocking-chair — swaying gently back and forth to comfort his debilitating back injury from WWII — and insert pointed questions in order to push the conversation toward the best course of action.
The Moral Decision
Robert Kennedy and the entire Kennedy Administration had learned important but grave lessons from the violent mobs that would erupt in southern states to maintain their cruel and oppressive Jim Crow laws. The Attorney General was assigned to construct alternatives on handling, in person, the defiant Governor. One alternative was to do nothing. However, this alternative was unacceptable to the authority and responsibility of the United States Government to enforce federal law. Another alternative was to either arrest the Governor or to physically push him aside and away from the doorway. These alternatives were all dismissed after consultation between the President, the Attorney General, and numerous advisers.
Finally, the best course of action devised by the Attorney General was to send his Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach to Tuscaloosa to be ‘the eyes and ears’ on the ground, and to respectfully but authoritatively confront Governor Wallace before the President would decide to nationalize the Alabama National Guard, under the command of Henry V. Graham, to force the Governor to step aside.
The Attorney General, additionally, decided that the two students should remain in a Federal Marshall’s vehicle while Katzenbach confronted the Governor. The idea being that if President Kennedy needed to nationalize the Alabama National Guard to force the Governor to step aside, then Katzenbach could quietly accompany the students back to a dormitory so that it wouldn’t show any type of televised ‘victory’ for the Governor. Meanwhile, the process of nationalizing the Guard could commence.
The process of mobilizing the Alabama National Guard would take a few hours, but if prepared beforehand would be accomplished relatively quickly. At that point, the National Guard of 100 troops would be ready to order Governor Wallace to move aside or be removed from blocking the students’ entrance into the University.
After identifying and evaluating the alternatives, the President approved the Attorney General’s plan. As well, President Kennedy questioned his staff on whether or not to make a national televised address on the current situation in Alabama and racial inequality in the U.S. He needed to find the best rhetorical response to unite the nation, while convincing the southern states that the Federal government will enforce all federal laws.
Interestingly unique to American history, two brothers were displaying moral leadership from different positions in the Federal government. President Kennedy was tasked with demonstrating, through his words & decisions, moral and ethical leadership to an anxious American public. The Attorney General was managing the best course of action on the ground in order to peacefully enroll the two students, while forcing the Governor to obey federal court orders, and show the American public that the U.S. government will enforce desegregation laws and protect African American citizens at all costs.
A Segregationist’s Last Stand
On June 11, 1963, the plan had developed much like the Attorney General and President had desired. Governor Wallace stood in front of the University doors, which were crowded with State law enforcement officials, Alabama residents, protesters, and reporters. Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach and his aides kept in consistent contact with the Attorney General by phone during the entire confrontation.
Meanwhile, Governor Wallace adamantly refused to step aside and allow the students to enter the registration building peacefully. He stood tall in his short stature and continued to spew his segregationist propaganda of ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ to his supporters. Katzenbach, uncomfortably, stood in front of the Governor and made clear that the Governor must obey the federal court order or be forcefully removed.
The Attorney General , at this point, notified President Kennedy, who preceded to issue an Executive Order, nationalizing the Alabama National Guard. Governor Wallace reluctantly, but peacefully a few hours later stepped aside once the Commander of the Alabama Guard confronted him that he was ordered to remove the Governor from the doorway by the President of the United States. Finally, once the spectacle ended, the two students enrolled in their classes, peacefully & safely, later in the day.
Afterwards, the Attorney General recommended that the President address the nation on civil rights and the actions taken by the Federal Government in a national televised address — which was not a unanimous recommendation by many of President Kennedy’s close advisers. The decision to speak garnered even more support a day later when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi.
The President and Attorney General believed an address could alleviate some of the current anxieties across the nation. And, moreover, show the Administration’s commitment to protecting civil rights and passing future legislation. The address by the President, the Attorney General believed, would generate a positive sense of justice and moral duty by the Federal government in the political battle against segregationists like Governor George Wallace of Alabama in order to win popular support throughout the country.
As shown throughout history, leadership is displayed by all sorts of people of different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. It is essential that leaders keep their composure, and not overreact or add any unnecessary conflicts or anxieties to an already volatile situation. Leadership in terms of the Kennedy Administration followed the Theodore Roosevelt’s model of ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. There was no rhetoric of shame nor hatred towards the general white populations of the south by President Kennedy in his televised speech. Nor was there any other excessive show of force by Attorney General Robert Kennedy that would incite violence at the University of Alabama. Effective and moral leadership is both measured and balanced — consisting of courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance in each decision.
It is also important to observe the conduct and leadership of Governor George Wallace during this moment in American history. Famously, Bob Dylan poetically cemented this moment in American history in his classic 1964 song “The Times They Are a-Changin” — “Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” Wallace’s attempt to lead failed tragically into the abyss of historical oppression and racism in America. He failed in the aspect of moral leadership, and he regretted and made excuses for his actions later on in his life. In the early 1990’s he said before his death,
“When I first ran for governor… I had to stand up for segregation or be defeated, but I never insulted black people by calling them inferior. That statement in 1963 about ‘segregation forever’ and my stand in the classroom door reflected my vehemence, my belligerence, against the federal court system that seemed to be taking over everything in the South. I didn’t write those words about segregation now, tomorrow and forever. I saw them in the speech written for me and planned to skip over them. But the wind-chill factor was 5 below zero when I gave that speech. I started reading just to get it over and read those words without thinking. I have regretted it all my life.”
His words are a sad example of why moral and ethical leadership are so vital in a democracy in order to avoid leaders that don’t have the fortitude, wisdom, justice, or temperance to do what is morally right in order to lead a state or nation.
Robert F. Kennedy’s Historical Impact on Moral Leadership
Robert Kennedy’s aggressive pursuance of justice gave him the reputation of being one of the most prestigious Attorney Generals in U.S history. It was a surprise to many that this young man, 35 years old, who was given the opportunity through absolute nepotism to be able to perform at such a high level. As Attorney General, he was at the forefront of the civil rights movement and committed himself to justice and duty to enforce the laws of our nation.
However, like every human-being, his resume has blemishes that are irrefutable. Under the persistence of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he signed off on a wire tapping on Martin Luther King on the weak evidence that he had Communist sympathies. Robert Kennedy, especially at the beginning of his career, was always fighting his virtue against his loyalty. Whether it be for a person like Eugene McCarthy or the Democratic Party. He thought in the classic Catholic sense of ‘good versus evil’. Although, through experience and time he developed a much more nuanced perspective of the world and his duty as a leader.
Yet, what makes Robert Kennedy so appealing to many people, especially optimistic & idealistic youth, across the political spectrum is that he was both a mixture of conservative ‘law & order' style of leadership while having a progressive social justice mindset like a preacher on a pulpit. It seems like an oxymoron in today’s politics to be a blend of both. His rhetoric is a beautiful mixture of conservative and progressive idealism that united various generations and races together throughout the mid-to-late 1960's;
“We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.”
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Like all great moral leaders, his words and policies were guided by his virtues. Every interaction with common everyday folk began with a sense of empathy for their problems. His genuine empathy and honest rhetoric gave people the trust that he could be their leader to make decisions hundreds of miles away in the political bubble that is Washington D.C.
During his tenure as Attorney General, he initiated a more aggressive stance on equal rights for minorities groups in the United States. As Senator of New York, he became the champion of the downtrodden & poverty-stricken minority communities. He, somehow, brought together diverse peoples in one body politic and engaged private institutions to invest their capital throughout New York’s most deprived areas — with a goal to decrease unemployment and increase the standard of living.
In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy made a visit to the University of Alabama to make a speech to their students — where just a few years before he may have been the most hated man in the State. These types of actions garnered the respect of the American people more so than any of his accolades or policies. He was bold, and unafraid to step into the lions den of opposing ideas and did not shy away from criticism. During this speech, he spoke of the ideals that just three years ago was the reason he enforced vigorously the desegregation of the University, as Attorney General.
“Education is the key to jobs, to income, to human dignity itself…In the last analysis, the quality of education is a question of commitment — of whether people like us are willing to go into the classrooms as teachers or parents, as volunteers, or just as concerned citizens, to ensure that every child learns to the full limit of his or her capabilities.”
Robert F. Kennedy’s public service career is an important historical lesson for America’s future leaders, mainly, due to his tremendous growth as a leader in just a short decade. He represents honest and compassionate politics. Leaders who want to gain insight on ethical decision-making and moral leadership, in general, are attracted to his public life, and more so to his tiny ripple of leadership that wasn’t pulled by a current of America’s darkest fears and anxieties.
“Each nation has different obstacles and different goals, shaped by the vagaries of history and of experience. Yet as I talk to young people around the world I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future.”
-Robert F. Kennedy
Why does history and moral leadership matter?
“I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read; — but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family — a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related — a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. — But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone. — They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.
They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. — Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.
Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
-Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions; January 27, 1838.