A GAMBLE FOR AMERICA
When and why Bobby Kennedy visited 12th Street
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The following article is adapted from a forthcoming book by Paul Lee, Bobby Kennedy @ Detroit’s “Ground Zero,” May 15, 1968. — Ed.
The Democratic National Convention at Denver, Col., this week featured a rare speech by Caroline Kennedy, the last living member of the immediate family of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline; a video tribute to her uncle, ailing Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy, by documentary producer Ken Burns; and a surprise, triumphant appearance by the “Liberal Lion of the Senate,” himself.
Had Kennedy’s brother Bobby not been assassinated four decades ago, while he was campaigning for the Democratic party’s nomination for president, he would’ve been a — if not the — central figure at the party’s 1968 convention at Chicago, advocating themes that sound familiar today: A “new politics” that would end an unpopular war abroad and reconcile age-old divisions at home.
This week’s vivid reminder of what was and what might have been offers us an opportunity to recall a little-known Detroit connection to this old and new story.
Few Detroiters know or remember that, the month before he was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy, then the junior New York senator, made two visits to Detroit, on May 5 and May 15, 1968, as part of his presidential run.
Aside from the fact that they occurred 40 years ago, one of the chief reasons for this unawareness is that the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News were on strike during that period. (Unaccountably, The Michigan Chronicle, the state’s oldest African American newspaper, which did not strike, failed to report the second, more important visit.)
Another reason is that most of Kennedy’s biographers have ignored his visits to the Motor City.
Of those who do know or remember, fewer still are aware that, during Kennedy’s second visit, he toured 12th Street, now Rosa Parks Boulevard, where its mostly African American residents rapturously received him.
This might seem surprising, given the then-recent history of 12th Street and the U.S. Ten months earlier, this was the site of the worst urban uprising in U.S. history up to that time. This five-day conflagration was primarily a black rebellion against the oppression, exploitation and violence of “white power” when Detroit was still a mostly white city, controlled by and for white people.
Six weeks before Kennedy’s visit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
One Detroiter who vividly recalls Kennedy’s 12th Street tour is Ronald Hewitt, known as Cardinal Karamo Omari in the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church.
“He came into my office,” recalls Hewitt, then the director of the city’s Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project, located at 9011 12th St., near Taylor.
(Hewitt later became a trusted aide to Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor, after post-rebellion “white flight” to the suburbs and the political mobilization of the city’s new African American majority helped make Black Power in Detroit possible in 1973.)
“He was very slimly built, frail,” Hewitt recalls of the former U. S. attorney general, but “he didn’t look weak at all. … Kinda raw-boned and sinewy,” like someone who had played a lot of touch football, Hewitt added wryly, referring to one of the Kennedy family’s favorite pastimes. “His eyes were real bright and he had a smile on his face.”
Kennedy’s motorcade apparently arrived on 12th Street from W. Grand Boulevard. It included his wife, Ethel, pregnant with their 11th child, and Kennedy’s husky, grim-faced white bodyguard Bill Barry, a former FBI special agent, who served as Kennedy’s human anchor to keep him from being pulled from the car by excited crowds.
If Kennedy and his party looked left two blocks before they reached 12th Street, they would’ve seen the famous Hitsville U. S. A., the two-story converted house that served as the administrative offices and studio of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records “crossover” music empire (now the Motown Historical Museum).
Next to Hitsville was the venerable, black-owned James H. Cole Home For Funerals, also a converted house, founded in 1919 in the predominantly African American Black Bottom neighborhood on Detroit’s near Eastside.
(Cole later moved into the large building next door, a former insurance company. The original structure was torn down and the space used for the new facility’s parking lot.)
By this time, Black Bottom had been bulldozed by the city’s ironically named Urban Renewal redevelopment program, which displaced the Bottom’s mostly poor residents, many of whom moved to the near Westside and crowded into 12th Street because Detroit’s discriminatory housing patterns left them few other options.
This, in turn, helped create the combustible social tinder that exploded on July 23, 1967 at 12th and Clairmount, the epicenter of the rebellion.
Kennedy’s motorcade, trailed by at least one chartered press bus, would’ve turned right onto 12th, where the looming, Gothic-style Boulevard Temple Methodist church majestically presided over the northwest corner. (The church is now the Boulevard Temple Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a senior care facility.)
From there, the motorcade, with Kennedy standing erect and flashing his shy smile in the backseat, moved slowly north down the mile-long stretch to Clairmount, which defined the street’s main commercial district.
Eager crowds spilled into the then-narrow street to see and touch Kennedy — who soon removed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves — then closed behind and followed the motorcade as it proceeded.
‘A black thing’
Photographs show that the crowds were mostly young, mostly black. The few white exceptions were a television or film crew, bristling with heavy cameras, headphones and long boom mics; a wide-eyed gaggle of print reporters and photographers ringing the convertible; and a handful of alert members of the Motorcycle Squad of the Detroit Police Department, under white helmets, behind sunglasses and atop their traditional Harvey Davidsons, escorting the motorcade. Competing with the latter were black boys riding high on small bicycles.
Photographs also document the effective work done by Kennedy’s advance team. By the time that the motorcade turned onto 12th Street, Kennedy bumper-stickers could be seen affixed to the front or back of T-shirts and wrapped around the popular “stingy brim” hats. Campaign literature, some of it bearing Kennedy’s unassuming likeness, was thrust at the candidate for his autograph, then held aloft as a prized trophy.
No city, county or state bigwigs accompanied Kennedy, not even the amiable, rubber-faced Mayor Jerome P. (Jerry) Cavanagh, a fellow Irish Catholic. Cavanagh had introduced Kennedy at a jam-packed noon outdoor campaign rally at Kennedy Square, the plaza of raised concrete platforms named in honor of President John F. Kennedy, Bobby’s martyred older brother, located at the corner of Woodward and Michigan avenues.
(The square, once the site of rallies, demonstrations and free concerts, which is warmly recalled by many older Detroiters because of its waterfall and wading pool, was razed in 2001 to make way for One Kennedy Square, the 10-story, green-glass façade office building occupied by the Ernst & Young accounting firm, directly across from Campus Martius.)
“It’s was a black thing,” says Hewitt of Kennedy’s 12th Street visit.
“It got so crowded” in Hewitt’s office, he recalls, “we feared for his safety. … You could almost feel the walls stretching,” with eager African Americans pressed against the door and plate-glass window.
Initially, Hewitt had Kennedy stand on a desk, but his heightened visibility only increased the pressure to see and touch him — so much so that Hewitt worried that the window might pop out onto the street onlookers.
Speech and symbolism
With no room to maneuver, Hewitt and others had to pass Kennedy hand-over-hand back into Kennedy’s convertible, parked directly in front of Hewitt’s office on the west side of 12th, a few doors above Taylor. From Kennedy’s new perch, “He spoke to the people,” Hewitt says, although he doesn’t recall a word of Kennedy’s speech.
It’s likely that Kennedy spoke extemporaneously, as he apparently did downtown, but briefly and only to the immediate crowd. (Photographs suggest that he spoke from the convertible and there is no evidence of a microphone or sound system to broadcast his remarks.)
If so, this would’ve played into Kennedy’s preference for directness and his knack for connecting with crowds, particularly black crowds.
Hewitt thinks he knows at least one reason why Kennedy impressed black people. “He was more perceived like a street-fighter. … More of the ‘shanty Irish’ of the Kennedys came through in Bobby,” Hewitt observes, referring to the poorest of the Irish immigrants in contrast to the more respectable “lace curtain” Irish — even though the Kennedys were millionaires.
Hewitt believes that this was likely at the root of Kennedy’s “honest indignation” over oppression, which “caused him to relate to black people’s struggle a bit better,” even more so than President Kennedy, who was much beloved by African Americans.
Black people at 12th Street responded accordingly. “They cheered him right to the time [he and] his entourage pulled off” to catch a flight to California for campaign appearances at Los Angeles and Van Nuys that same day.
The response of black Detroiters, and Hewitt’s lack of recollection of what Kennedy said, perhaps suggests that his words were not as important as where he’d spoken them — at the corner of 12th and Taylor, one block south of “Ground Zero” of the rebellion.
His very presence seemed a powerful witness of the depth of his concern for black Detroit, an implicit affirmation that this community, usually forgotten or condemned, mattered — on its own terms, on its own home ground — the political calculations of his more cautious aides and the possible “backlash” of nervous white voters be damned.
Three weeks after Kennedy’s last Detroit visit, he was shot at Los Angeles, Calif., after winning the California Democratic primary on June 4. He died the following day.
Did such forays entail political risk, as Kennedy’s older political advisers believed? Competing with them for influence were “Young Turks” or “bomb throwers,” as several of his more radical speechwriters were called.
According to Newsweek contributing editor Peter Goldman, who covered the Kennedy campaign in Indiana and Nebraska, the younger staffers “were mostly there precisely because he took large risks, not only on ‘race’ but on the war, poverty and social justice.”
Goldman recalls that Kennedy’s traveling retinue included both camps, but that the “gestalt” of the campaign tended to favor the sensibilities of the younger staffers, which Kennedy shared, in contrast to the reputation he’d earned as a “ruthless” Boston pol eight years earlier as his older brother’s campaign manager.
“The members of his traveling inner circle were not the usual mercenaries,” Goldman notes; “practically none of them made a career as political professional operatives before or after his campaign. They were cause people, and RFK embodied their beliefs.”
In this sense, Goldman says, “his entire campaign was a gamble that America could be made to care about the poor and disfranchised of whatever color. …”
After RFK’s assassination, his image, usually framed with those of MLK and JFK in a trinity that was more sentimental than historical, would compete for space with representations of Jesus on the walls and tables of African Americans throughout the country.
This would certainly have been true on 12th Street.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Lee