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Robert Kennedy and the Heart of Dixie

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Editor’s Note: This is an exerpt from a new book on Robert F. Kennedy, former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, written by former Anniston Star reporter Larry Tye.

The race riots in Montgomery in the spring of 1961 and in Oxford, Miss., the next year had stirred a small voice within Robert F. Kennedy that would amplify over the second half of his tenure as attorney general. He offered a hint of that evolution in his first public speech after the mayhem at Ole Miss. Civil rights had always been one of too many domestic issues competing for his attention, but now he was beginning to see it in a different context. James Meredith — who was able to enroll as the University of Mississippi’s first black student only with the intervention of federal troops — “brought to a head and lent his name to another chapter in the mightiest internal struggle of our time,” Bobby told his audience that October evening in Milwaukee.

The next chapter in that struggle played out back in Alabama, at the state university’s main campus in Tuscaloosa. The new governor, George Wallace, had made two seminal vows on his long road to election. First, back in 1958, when he ran as a racial moderate and was beaten by the tougher-talking John Patterson, he promised, “I’ll never be out-niggered again.” Second, he vowed in the heat of his successful 1962 campaign that he would block with his own body the door to any segregated schoolhouse that was ordered to enroll black students. Lest anyone still doubt his intent, he made himself even clearer in his inaugural address. Noting that he was standing on the sacred ground where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America, Wallace paraphrased a secret KKK pledge: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”

The way to fulfill all three promises, Wallace decided, was to go head to head with Bobby Kennedy over a federal judge’s order to admit two black students — Vivian Malone and James Hood — to the university’s summer session in 1963. Wallace’s neighbor Ross Barnett had done that in Mississippi and seen his poll numbers soar. But the Alabama governor underestimated Bobby’s capacity to learn from his mistakes in Oxford. Before the court in Alabama even issued its opinion, Bobby traveled there to demonstrate his interest and take the measure of his adversary. Greeting him at the state Capitol were 40 riot-trained state troopers — Confederate flags were painted on their helmets, while a real Navy Jack had been hoisted above the building — one of whom poked Bobby in the stomach with his stick, while another refused to shake his hand. The governor, the attorney general said, was using his lawmen to make a point: “that my life was in danger in coming to Alabama because people hated me so much.” Bobby took away a different message: that Wallace was “acting like a raving maniac” because he was “scared” by a judge’s threat to toss him in jail if he blocked the students’ enrollment. That impression was reinforced when Kennedy and Wallace met face-to-face in a session that lasted an hour and 20 minutes and, with the governor taping it, was aimed at trapping Bobby into saying something shocking and letting Wallace play to public opinion. Typical was this exchange:

Kennedy: Do you think it is so horrifying to have a Negro attend the University of Alabama?

Wallace: I think it is horrifying for the federal courts and the central government to rewrite all the law and force upon people that which they don’t want.

Kennedy: But Governor, it is not the central government. We are not rewriting the laws. It is the federal courts that have made a decision, and a determination —

Wallace: The federal courts rewrote the law in the matter of integration and segregation. For a hundred years they said we could have segregated schools, and then all of a sudden, for political reasons, they pull the rug out from under us. . . . I will never myself submit voluntarily to any integration in a school system in Alabama.

Bobby’s trip to the Heart of Dixie convinced him to plan for the worst at the university even as he calculated ways to exploit Wallace’s various soft spots. He prepared to federalize the Alabama National Guard and had real federal troops standing by at nearby Fort Benning. State business leaders, meanwhile, had been shocked out of their instinctive support for the ways of the Old South by the white mob’s savage reaction to the Freedom Riders two years before in Montgomery and by withering pressure from the White House; they let Wallace know that the only acceptable outcome was a peaceful one. The University of Alabama president also quietly conspired with federal officials, determined to keep his campus from becoming a riot-torn replica of Ole Miss. In charge on the scene was the Justice Department’s Nicholas Katzenbach, who had orders to avoid any face-off that would make Wallace into a hero and, if possible, “to make him look foolish.” The table and floor in Bobby’s office in Washington were covered with maps of Tuscaloosa, letting him not just monitor the action but pilot it.

D-Day in Tuscaloosa fell on June 11, but instead of an invasion, Bobby ran an end run. He had been tipped off about something few in Alabama were aware of then: that four years before, then Circuit Court judge George Wallace had worked out a “secret deal” in the “darkest hours of the night” with federal judge Frank Johnson to turn over voter registration records even as he publicly proclaimed he wouldn’t. Knowing about that and other historic backtracking, Bobby gambled that Wallace would give a repeat performance now. The attorney general let the governor make his theatrical stand in the schoolhouse door. White crayons marked where Wallace should stand, TV and radio crews had been pre-positioned, and the diminutive governor raised his hand in the universal symbol of the traffic cop as he denounced the federal interference. The only people he was blocking, however, were Katzenbach and two law enforcement colleagues, with Malone and Hood a safe distance away. The National Guard was mobilized but saw no combat. The two students checked in to their dormitories and quietly registered that afternoon. Wallace’s performance as defender of the South was beamed across the land and stoked his national ambitions, but those on the scene knew his script had been carefully crafted to suggest defiance but deliver acquiescence.

“The show is over. Obviously the Kennedys have won,” said Seymore Trammel, Wallace’s former finance director and friend. The governor “wanted the fires of integration fanned in order to build the issue to a fever pitch among the emotional voters. We figured there were 30 emotional voters, especially in the South, to every 1 objective voter,” Trammel recounted in an unpublished memoir. Bobby, too, used the events in Tuscaloosa to present exactly the conciliatory image he needed after his disasters with the Freedom Rides and Ole Miss. “All eyes of integration were on Bobby,” said Trammel, who eventually had a bitter break with Wallace. “And all eyes of segregation were focused on Wallace.”

Larry Tye — a former reporter at the Star — is the author of seven books, including Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, due out this week from Random House.

[1] There is an ongoing debate over whether Wallace said “out-segged” or “out-niggered.” Wallace defenders insist it was the former, but others who heard him have no doubt he used the more offensive wording.