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Visit Helped Shape RFK’s Civil Rights Legacy

July 14, 2018

The 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy Sr.’s assassination last month surely conjured up memories among local Democrats old enough to remember his St. Patrick’s Day 1964 visit to Northeast Pennsylvania and others who have heard stories about it. It’s local political lore, but the trip’s deeper significance gets overshadowed by the aura of RFK’s celebrity and local Democrats’ love for all things Kennedy. In his March 17, 1964, address to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County, Kennedy pretty firmly pushed for a national civil rights bill just as President Lyndon Johnson was still trying to talk Congress into passing it. First, let’s deal with a major misconception. More than a few people have reported in this newspaper or told us that RFK’s visit here was his first public appearance or speech since the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Well, not really. If you search “speeches of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy,” you’ll find a Department of Justice list with links to their prepared text. His first 1964 speech happened Feb. 28 at the International Police Academy’s graduation ceremonies in Washington, D.C. A newspaper story reported the speech centered on fighting crime. Number two on the Justice list: the Friendly Sons speech. You can argue whether the police academy was a “public” appearance, considering the limited audience, but the Friendly Sons limited access to members and invited guests. One author who collected RFK’s speeches in a book said the Friendly Sons speech was his first since the assassination before “a large audience,” but it definitely wasn’t even his only public appearance before a large audience that day. Kennedy began St. Patrick’s Day with a visit to his slain brother’s tomb at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Thomas J. Kiernan, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. Kiernan planted shamrocks from the Irish presidential palace in Dublin, according to an Associated Press story. In the afternoon, Kennedy flew to Northeast Pennsylvania. U.S. Rep. Dan Flood, the legendary Luzerne County Democratic congressman, accompanied him on the Kennedy family plane named Caroline. The plane landed about 4:15 p.m. at the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Airport — it’s name then — where a large crowd greeted him. First stop: South Scranton, where Kennedy helped break ground for the new John F. Kennedy Elementary School, perhaps the first named after the late president. About 3,000 attended, the city police chief estimated. Next, Kennedy traveled to the Mayfair Supper Club in Yatesville where the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick hosted its 50th anniversary dinner. WNEP-TV televised that appearance live at 6 p.m., according to a newspaper advertisement published the same day. Kennedy spoke briefly, regaling the audience with tales of his brother’s last visit to Ireland. He said he came to Pittston because “you’re our kind of Irish.” He used the exact phrase or a variation at both Scranton stops, too. At the Friendly Sons dinner in Scranton, Kennedy spoke at the Hotel Casey where his brother soaked his aching back in a third-floor room’s bathtub before his famous Oct. 28, 1960, presidential campaign speech at the Watres Armory. JFK’s speech culminated a day-long swing that also hit Pottsville, Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre and Pittston. It remains a highlight in local history. WDAU-TV (now WYOU), the local television news leader back then, broadcast the Lackawanna Friendly Sons speech live, according to a newspaper advertisement. Kennedy spoke for almost 17½ minutes. You can find audio of almost 14 minutes on YouTube. The Friendly Sons also gave out a full compact-disc version to people who attended their 2007 dinner. Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon has called Kennedy’s speech “one of the finest speeches he ever gave in his life,” and you won’t get any argument here. The most memorable part remains a poem about Owen Roe O’Neill, a famous Irish patriot of the 1600s. “We’re sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky — Oh! why did you leave us Owen? Why did you die?” The parallel to President Kennedy welled tears in many in the ballroom, but the full speech had a broader context. Almost a year earlier, Kennedy met with black cultural leaders like writer James Baldwin, singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte and others. Kennedy expected praise for the administration’s fight for civil rights, but they basically told him his brother wasn’t doing enough. An angry Kennedy later ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to place Baldwin and others under surveillance to gather dirt, but JFK administration officials later said the meeting marked a turning point in RFK’s thinking. He urged his brother to address civil rights, which JFK did in a historic speech less than three weeks later. On Feb. 10, 1964, the U.S. House passed a civil rights bill for the first time. Flood, a Democrat, and Rep. Joseph McDade of Scranton, a Republican, voted for it. In his police academy speech 18 days later, Kennedy only briefly alluded to civil rights. He spent a lot more time on civil rights at the Friendly Sons dinner, which came about two weeks before the Senate began debating its version. Kennedy remembered Ireland’s centuries fighting for freedom from British rule, how the Irish couldn’t vote, serve on a jury or act as lawyers, go to college, work for the government or marry a Protestant. He pointed out many remained without basic rights like free speech and the right to vote behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “There are Americans who — as the Irish did — still face discrimination in employment, sometimes open, sometimes hidden. There are cities in America today that are torn with strife over whether a Negro should be allowed to drive a garbage truck; and there are walls of silent conspiracy that block the progress of others because of race or creed, without regard to ability,” Kennedy said. “The bloody struggles for liberty from the sands of Algeria to the steaming jungles of Indonesia and Vietnam proved that others would make the same sacrifices to throw off the yoke of imperialism today that the Irish did more than a half century ago.” He alluded to his brother’s belief in a civil rights bill and Johnson’s push for it and said they were “the current flowering of the Irish tradition.” After reading the O’Neill poem, he urged the crowd to “one final time recall the heritage of the Irish” and help the people struggling for freedom “at home and abroad.” “Let us not leave them to be ‘sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky,’” he said. “Let us show them that we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope — of the Irish.” Kennedy made several speeches on civil rights before his brother died and several more after his Scranton visit. On June 19, 1964, the Senate passed its version of the civil rights bill. On July 2, the House passed the Senate version. Hours later, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The warm reception in NEPA convinced Kennedy to remain in public service, one author wrote, but the speech in downtown Scranton also signaled Kennedy would remain engaged on civil rights, which he did right up until his assassination. That’s the real legacy of his Scranton visit. BORYS KRAWCZENIUK, The Times-Tribune politics reporter, writes Random Notes.

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