In the early 1960s, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy painted a promising picture for African Americans.
The interview was broadcast on Voice of America to 60 countries across the globe and occurred at a time when blacks were soldiering through the Civil Rights Movement.
“There’s no question about it,” Kennedy reportedly said. “In the next 40 years, a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.”
Apocryphal or not, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy went on to say that prejudice existed, and probably would continue to.
“But we have tried to make progress and we are making progress,” he said. “We are not going to accept the status quo.”
That status quo changed in 2008 when Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, and the first African American.
“I stand here today,” Obama said at the time, “humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”
By tracing those sacrifices, Obama essentially told the story of America.
“Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less,” he said. “It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
“For us,” Obama explained, “they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.”
Obama’s story is all too well known by now. And maybe, just maybe, Kennedy really believed that someday a black would be president. But at the time of RFK’s interview, blacks couldn’t imagine anything of the sort.
In a story published on March 7, 1965, in the New York Times Magazine, highly acclaimed author James Baldwin wrote an essay titled “The American Dream and the American Negro.”
“I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President,” Baldwin wrote. “That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted.
“From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.”
Baldwin was a little harsh, but he wrote of what he knew, and the chance of the nation electing a black man to the U.S. presidency was as remote as landing a man on the moon.
Baldwin’s thinking was not the result of paranoia, but of historical fact. It wasn’t that long ago that blacks were not considered good enough to eat at the same table with the president of the United States.
Take the time when Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House. It was in October 1901, and it caused such consternation among Southerners that Roosevelt never invited Washington again.
It was a curious decision, especially considering that Washington — the founder of Tuskegee Institute and widely believed to be the leading racial accommodationists at the turn of the 20th century — was one of Roosevelt’s advisers on black political appointments. Roosevelt genuinely liked Washington and said he thought that Washington was one of the “occasionally good, well-educated, intelligent and honest colored men” who should be given the right to vote.
But that wasn’t enough for Roosevelt to override Southern animosity.
The New Orleans Times Democrat wrote: “When Mr. Roosevelt sits down to dinner with a Negro, he declares that the Negro is the social equal of the white man.”
The New Orleans Daily States called it a “studied insult to the South.”
Josephus Daniels, a Virginia editor who would later serve as secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, wrote: “It is not a precedent that will encourage Southern men to join hands with Mr. Roosevelt.”
Some of Roosevelt’s reluctance was political expediency. The Republican Party was very much the Party of Lincoln and as such welcomed recently freed slaves into the party — to a point. Southerners started their own branch of the party called the “Lily Whites” to “remove the odor of Black republicanism from their party in the south,” one historian wrote.
In a letter dated three years after the Washington dinner, Roosevelt wrote a friend: “It may be that it would have been better for me not to have Booker Washington at dinner. Personally I think I was right. But even if I was wrong, to say that the South’s attitude is explained by [this act] is to say that the South is in a condition of violent chronic hysteria.”
And at the time, Roosevelt was considered to be racially enlightened. But he too was victim of the times and considered blacks inferior to whites.
“I would not be willing to die for what I regard as the untrue abstract statement that all men are in all respects equal, and are all alike entitled to the same power,” Roosevelt argued. “But I would be quite willing to die … for the proposition that each man has certain rights which no other man should be allowed to take away from him.”
By 1905 — and safely back in the White House for a second term — Roosevelt had completely surrendered.
In a landmark speech at the Lincoln Dinner of the New York Republican Club on Feb. 13, 1905, Roosevelt explained that race relations must be adjusted so that the “backward race be trained that it may enter into the possession of true freedom while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed” its high civilization.
Quite naturally, Roosevelt said he believed that racial purity must be maintained.
“Civil law can not regulate social practices,” Roosevelt told the gathering at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “Society, as such, is a law unto itself, and will always regulate its own practices and habits. Full recognition of the fundamental fact that all men should stand on an equal footing, as regards civil privileges, in no way interferes with recognition of the further fact that all reflecting men of both races are united in feeling that race purity must be maintained.”
No doubt the process “must necessarily be slow,” continued the president; “it is a problem demanding the best thought, the utmost patience.”
Patience is one constant requirement in African American life. That too is a historical fact, and while Robert Kennedy may be given credit for predicting that a black might — one day — become president, black folks knew it all along.
Or at least, they hoped.
Sam Cornish was one of the hopeful. Cornish had gained notoriety after he and John Russworm started the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827.
That paper lasted a little less than two years, but on July 1, 1837, Cornish was at the helm of another newspaper, The Colored American, in which he published what he thought would need to occur before a black could become president.
“Let us do our part, fill up the schools, and effect a punctual attendance, and the trustees will spare no pains nor expenses in furnishing all the means of a useful and finished education,” the Colored American wrote. “We ought to feel more interested in this subject, brethren — we owe it to prosperity. We are not always to be a downtrodden people. Our infant sons, should we give them suitable advantages, will be as eligible to the Presidency of the United States, as any other portions of the community; and it is our wisdom, if possible, to give them as ample qualifications.”
It took 172 years from Cornish’s writing, but that day finally came.