Miss Lorraine Hansberry & Bobby Kennedy


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June 6, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 33

Miss Hansberry & Bobby K

By Diane Fisher

“When we left the Kennedys’ apartment I had a feeling of complete futility, and as we got on the elevator I wondered if there is any way to make the white people in this country understand….”

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry discussed the meeting she, James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Freedom Rider Jerome Smith, psychologist Kenneth Clarke, and a number of other Negro entertainers and leaders had with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in late May at the Kennedy Family’s Central Park South apartment. It was her first interview since then.

“Mr. Kennedy seemed to have the least rapport with Jerome Smith,” Miss Hansberry said, “and would have dismissed him entirely, I think, if the rest of us hadn’t made it clear that we considered him the most important person in the room. Mr. Smith told Mr. Kennedy that a time may come when he will, no matter how reluctantly, hand arms to a militant integrationist — even a Black Muslim.”

Smith, married and the father of two children, dropped out of college to become a Freedom Rider for the Congress of Racial Equality. He has been beaten and arrested in the South and served a jail term in Jackson, Mississippi, as a result.

Discussing the increasing attraction of the activist approach to integration over the moderate, she said: “Negroes aren’t violent by nature, and I don’t think the Black Muslims can become too powerful. Yet there comes a time when a person has taken so much hurt and insult and he rebels, and so with a people. At a rally in Harlem in April I felt a tension in the air I had never experience before. White people have always been welcome in Harlem, and for the first time I felt apprehension for the ones who were there, and there were quite a few. The Muslims, and there weren’t that many, started chanting, ‘We want Malcolm, we want Malcolm,’ and dominating the rally. I left soon after and heard that evening in the news that there was violence then.

“This new tension was what we tried to convey to Mr. Kennedy.” That the attempt failed has seemed evident in every comment made publicly by every person who was present at the meeting.

The rumbling has become a roar. The steadying voice of the moderates is being drowned by the battle cry of the extremists. Inaction once again has bred crisis. This has become a time of the instant, on-the-scene, unconsidered decision. The followers are leading, and the leaders are hard put even to keep up with the will of the followers. We’ve watched the Eisenhower-like paralysis of the Administration, paying lip service to civil rights, playing a game of politics. Now, from one person after another we hear, “It’s too late for politics!”

…As our talks became more general, we discussed Jim Crowism in the Village, which she says is strong among real estate agents. “They’ll make one excuse or another, but a Negro just can’t get an apartment,” she said. “Restaurant owners have pretty much had to give in.”

About James Baldwin: “He is a great writer, a great essayist, and his greatest gift is that he truly understands not just Negroes, but the American people.”

On differences between Negro and white people: “You know, Negroes I went to school with in the midwest, who had been raised in predominantly white communities, had midwestern rather than “Negro” accents and personalities. I think differences in attitudes and personalities are more cultural, environmental, than racial…”

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