I had difficult conversations on the run for the past seven years. Sometimes I get asked if they matter, if anything can change hearts and minds.
Not long ago a friend who is a devout Christian and a person of genuine goodwill wondered if I was wasting my time, people being what they are, believing what they do.
There is so much anger, so much division. Why bother talking?
Here’s what I’ve been thinking lately:
In May 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked James Baldwin to gather a group of black artists and advocates to meet him and Justice Department attorney Burke Marshall at his Manhattan penthouse. Baldwin invited a number of people involved in the fight for racial freedom, including Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry and Lena Horne.
Kennedy wanted to exhibit the racial achievements of the John Kennedy administration, to explain the political realities of slow change, and to try to understand black rage and despair when—as he believed—things were looking up.
He seems to have imagined this meeting in his family’s apartment near Central Park as following a familiar and comfortable formula: a powerful white man explaining how things were going, a black audience nodding and perhaps offering a few words of thanks or confirmation or encouragement.
But 24-year-old Jerome Smith, who had suffered horrific personal abuse as an activist in the Deep South, dropped that script. After listening to Kennedy extol the administration’s accomplishments and discuss the political problem of racist Southern Democrats, Smith told him he didn’t know why he was there listening to “all this cocktail fuss.” He told Kennedy he had reached the outer edge of his strength and patience, and although he truly believed in nonviolence, he could not promise to continue to turn the other cheek if the police continued to attack him with dogs, clubs, fire hoses.
“When I pull a trigger, say goodbye to him,” Smith said. Then he shocked Kennedy even more by telling him that young black people fighting for their rights at home would not fight for this country in Vietnam or anywhere else. Why should they?
Kennedy and his older brothers had served in World War II; Joseph had been killed, Jean seriously wounded. RFK turned away from Smith, surprised and angry, and scanned the room. Was there a more civilized voice, someone who could listen to reason, someone who understood political realities better than this boy?
But playwright Lorraine Hansberry brought the spotlight back to Jerome Smith: “You have a lot of very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General, but the only man who should be listened to is that man over there.
The evening ended badly. Hansberry coldly said good night to Kennedy and left, and the others followed. Kennedy felt ambushed and angry, and he lashed out at Baldwin, Hansberry, and Smith in the press.
Historian Larry Tye writing that “neither side got what they wanted. The Blacks had taken the opportunity to vent their rage – one of the reasons they had come on such short notice. They had also hoped to turn this brother well-meaning from a president to an ally, not for his incremental reforms but for decisive change.Blacks believed not only that they had failed, but that they had burned the bridge they had come to build.
“Robert F. Kennedy entered into this difficult conversation with Baldwin and his cronies as a well-meaning white man who assumed he knew what was best.”
Robert F. Kennedy was gone in that difficult conversation with Baldwin and his cronies as a well-meaning white man who assumed he knew what was best and that his country was on an upward trajectory when it came to race. He was a good white liberal. But what he encountered was the truth: Black people were tired, angry and desperate because this nation denies the moral reality of racism. Even a lot of good white liberals.
Kennedy was furious and outraged at the time and for some time afterwards. But to his credit – and to my friend’s question – something changed in him after that conversation.
In Christian teaching we often refer to the New Testament Greek word metanoia, usually translated as “repentance”. In the church of my youth, that was the big idea: Stop doing those bad things that you shouldn’t be doing. But the actual meaning of the original Greek is more nuanced; it’s not just about stopping what you shouldn’t be doing, but about making a 180 degree turn towards what you should be doing. Stop doing those bad things and lean into those good things. As Baldwin believed, we can always be better.
Mark Whitaker Noted in the Washington Post that Bobby Kennedy “was one of the few leaders in our national history who seemed to grow wiser, humbler, and more compassionate as he rose to fame and power”. Just weeks after being confronted with uncomfortable truths at Baldwin’s civil rights meeting, Robert Kennedy was the only adviser encouraging JFK to make the politically risky decision to respond to Alabama Governor George Wallace with a substantive discourse on civil rights.
RFK and Burke Marshall actually worked with speechwriter Ted Sorenson on the speech the president gave on national television on June 11, 1963. Bobby also sat down with his brother in the minutes before it aired, helping him to draft additional talking points.
Eric Michael Dyson said that Baldwin and the others in New York had wanted Bobby Kennedy to realize that the issue “wasn’t just political; it was about morality, dignity, taking a symbolic stand before the whole country. Kennedy didn’t understand. He kept insisting that change was hard and slow.
But the speech John Kennedy delivered shows that night that those lessons weren’t lost, how that tough conversation had led to harsh reassessments. JFK went further than any previous president in calling racism a national sin:
We are confronted above all with a moral question. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.
The crux of the matter is whether all Americans should be given the same rights and opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans the way we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot have lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public servants who will represent, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life that we all want, then who among us would be happy to see the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be satisfied with the advice of patience and delay?
By portraying racism as a “moral crisis,” Kennedy said that while there was to be constructive political action, it was, at bottom, a question of what kind of nation America would be, a question to be decided in every American heart – a language very similar to Baldwin’s. argument that how America dealt with the race question would determine whether the American experiment would succeed or fail.
In the years since that painful cocktail party, Bobby Kennedy has demonstrated a love and understanding for the poor, for the oppressed of all races, and for those held back by white supremacy. As a senator and presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy showed how difficult conversations could change those involved, how the “witness” that Baldwin often spoke of could pay off.
It’s far from the only conversational story leading to engagement, sure, but it’s one of my favorites. So, to my friend – and to all of us – I would say: tough conversations matter, perhaps more than ever in a radically divided nation. They are only a first step. But until we take that first step in faith, until we’re ready to sit down with any discomfort, the rest of the journey remains out of reach.
May we risk something big for something good.
Greg Garrett is the Carole McDaniel Hanks Professor of Literature and Culture at Baylor University and theologian canon of the American Cathedral in Paris. One of America’s leading voices on religion and culture, he is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently In Conversation: Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett and A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey From Racism to Reconciliation. He currently manages an Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation Racism Research Fellowship and is writing a book on racial mythologies for Oxford University Press. Greg is a seminary-trained lay preacher in the Episcopal Church and canon theologian at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. He lives in Austin with his wife, Jeanie, and their two daughters.