President Obama: RFK’s prediction finally came true

Howard Manly | 10/24/2012, 8:44 a.m.
In the early 1960s, then-Attorney General Robert...

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.