Our Voices

An Unlikely Path to “Justice Rising”

Patricia Sullivan wasn’t planning to write a book on Robert F. Kennedy.

That is, she said, until her literary agent noted that Sullivan mentioned RFK twice in the notes for her pitch examining the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

“She said, ‘Write a book about him. I can sell it. People will read it,’” Sullivan commented wryly during an author discussion on Justice Rising: Robert F. Kennedy’s America in Black and White with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell at the annual Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival on August 7, 2021.

Sullivan, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, said she began to think about the idea, consulting former students, colleagues, and historians, before she was ultimately sold on the focus.

“The way he moved through this decade, and saw, and responded to (the pressures and events of the day), just blew my mind,” she said.

Sullivan’s book, released in June 2021, places Kennedy at the center of a country in turmoil, and details Kennedy’s own personal growth following a tense May 1963 meeting with novelist James Baldwin and a number of other Black writers and cultural leaders at a Kennedy family apartment in New York City.

“It was them unloading on this guy who represented the federal government, and him just sitting there silent and listening,” she said.

O’Donnell, who hosts MSNBC’s The Last Word, noted that many descriptions of the Kennedy-Baldwin meeting often end in the apartment. Sullivan, however, instead portrays the meeting as one of the catalysts for Kennedy’s evolution as a leader focused on civil rights.

That’s evident, the book details, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, when Kennedy famously asks: “How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, when war comes, you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime, you’re a citizen of Missisippi and we can’t help you?”

“You’re watching the learning curve of, in this scene, a 37-year-old man, who is learning as a White American, faster than most 37-year-old white Americans at the time,” O’Donnell said.

Kennedy took a shoe-leather approach to visit impoverished minority communities across the country, to listen to their stories and commit to healing much of the nation’s pain.

“He went, he saw, he listened, he grew, in the constant interactions, going there, sitting there, listening, and understanding,” Sullivan said of Kennedy’s trips to Harlem, to the Mississippi Delta and beyond. “It’s something no other senator would have done then.”

The book concludes with Kennedy’s death in 1968, an event Sullivan experienced when she was a senior in high school.

“It was our 9/11,” she said. To have been there and have that be part of your memory, and to go back, almost 50 years later to examine the event as a historian was a jarring experience, she said.

She noted that RFK was “not perfect, yet … he was a remarkable human being who was engaged with his times, and that struggle we continue to struggle with today.”

Had he lived, she said “our country would have gone in a different direction.”