What Truth Sounds Like | Michael Eric Dyson

Summary of: What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
By: Michael Eric Dyson


Delve into the historical, courageous, and tumultuous journey of race-relations in the United States through the lens of the captivating book, ‘What Truth Sounds Like’ by Michael Eric Dyson. Unravel the vital conversations held between Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and key influential figures in the black community during the 1960s. This book summary highlights the crucial intersection of policy and witness in a time when racial tensions were escalating, showcasing the lives of leaders and activists in their fight for justice and equality. In a world still grappling with racial inequality, learn from the stories of the past to understand and overcome the roadblocks faced by marginalized communities today.

Robert F. Kennedy, Civil Rights and James Baldwin

Robert F. Kennedy’s determination to carve out his own legacy led him to support the civil rights movement and collaborate with writer and activist James Baldwin.

Robert F. Kennedy was often overshadowed by his older brother, John F. Kennedy, but he was determined to establish himself as an individual and political force in his own right. Despite facing criticism and doubts about his qualification for the role, he accepted the position of attorney general in his brother’s administration in 1960. His determination to prove himself coincided with a tumultuous period in American history, as the country entered the 1960s, a decade marked by significant civil rights and social movements.

One of the prominent figures who supported Kennedy during this period was writer and activist James Baldwin. Baldwin’s incendiary essays drew attention to the issues of race and religion in America, making him a spokesperson for the black community, despite his own struggles as a gay man. Although some black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., struggled to embrace his voice, Baldwin found an ally in Kennedy.

Their collaboration occurred against the backdrop of a nation grappling with increasing violence and racial segregation. In 1963, King had delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, yet it remained unclear how the Kennedy administration would respond to the movement for civil rights. However, Kennedy’s collaboration with Baldwin signaled his determination to support the civil rights cause and establish his own legacy as a political force.

JFK’s Civil Rights Record

John F. Kennedy is often seen as a progressive civil rights president, but the Black community wasn’t satisfied with his inaction. During Kennedy’s presidency, a nonviolent protest in Alabama turned violent, drawing criticism from James Baldwin. Kennedy’s brother Robert was more proactive, and he invited Baldwin and other Black influencers for discussion to find a solution to the crisis.

John F. Kennedy is often remembered as a progressive leader on civil rights issues. However, during his presidency, many in the Black community were growing increasingly frustrated with his lack of action. At the beginning of his administration, he wasn’t very involved in civil rights. It was his brother, Robert, who took a more proactive stance.

One major event that occurred during JFK’s presidency was a nonviolent protest in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, it ended with violent consequences, including fire hoses, dogs, and clubs being used against the protestors. Robert Kennedy, serving as attorney general at the time, dispatched mediators to help resolve the situation and prevent further harm. These actions earned the Kennedy administration a strong rebuke from white politicians and leaders in the South.

Following the events in Birmingham, James Baldwin wrote a telegram to Robert Kennedy, questioning whether the White House was to blame for the violence. Baldwin, a prominent Black activist, called the crisis a “matter of the nation’s life or death.” Despite his criticism, Robert Kennedy invited Baldwin to his home for breakfast to discuss the issue further.

Their conversation went well, and Kennedy invited Baldwin to bring some Black influencers to a follow-up discussion in Manhattan. Robert wanted to hear from independent minds who were respected by the Black community and not affiliated with political organizations. Baldwin suggested inviting entertainers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, who were admired by many in the Black community.

In summary, while JFK is often celebrated for his civil rights record today, many were left unsatisfied with his inaction during the civil rights battles of his time. His brother, Robert, took a more proactive stance, and together, they worked with Black influencers to discuss potential solutions to the civil rights crisis.

James Baldwin and the Meeting of Minds

James Baldwin arranges a meeting with Robert Kennedy and influential artists and scholars to discuss the fight for equal rights in 1963.

In March 1963, James Baldwin organized a meeting at the Manhattan apartment of Joseph Kennedy Sr. to discuss the fight for equal rights. Attending were some of the most influential names in the arts and academia of that time, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and Rip Torn.

Lorraine Hansberry was a driving force for equal rights and had been using her artistic talents to promote social commentary and progressive messages for years. Her influence and ability to mix art and politics made her an inspiration to Baldwin, and her attendance gave the meeting more heft.

Harry Belafonte, although a pop star, was always mindful of the messages he put in his music and the diverse cast he chose for his movies. Similarly, Lena Horne was aware that her light complexion gained her more favor in Hollywood. By 1963, she was confident enough to speak up for equal rights.

Kenneth Clark was a highly respected psychologist whose expert testimony played a crucial role in the Brown v. Board of Education trial. He used his expertise to fight the ignorance at the core of white supremacy and push for social change.

The meeting was significant, but one person stood out – Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy was moved by the social commentary in the arts and his discussions with the attendees. He tried to take action to solve the issues highlighted, leading to the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It’s the coming together of passionate individuals that made the group’s efforts so vital, as it changed the course of history.

Moment of Truth

A meeting between Robert Kennedy and African American activists including Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider who suffered from police brutality, revealed the deep-seated anger and frustration of the black community. During the meeting, Smith spoke up about his readiness to take up arms against oppression. The other guests, including Lorraine Hansberry, supported him, showcasing their willingness to fight using any means necessary. Kennedy failed to understand Smith’s pain and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. Smith’s words represented the dignity and hope of black America, revealing a dire need for moral change and action against systemic racism.

Witness versus Policy

The conflict between witness and policy was not new when politicians met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to discuss racial injustice. The 1963 meeting between Robert Kennedy and Jerome Smith’s friends was focused on witness, whereas Kennedy wanted to discuss policy. Hillary Clinton faced a similar challenge in her campaign when she tried to balance the need for policy change against the desire for heartfelt connection. While Clinton’s initial response left BLM leaders feeling unheard, the subsequent conversations led to the creation of concrete policy demands. Robert Kennedy’s transformation from policy-focused politician to an authentic voice for change provides a hopeful example of the positive changes that can result from bearing witness to others’ experiences of injustice.

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