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RFK and the Civil Rights Movement

In this interview with Truthdig’s Associate Editor Kasia Anderson, “RFK: The Journey to Justice” playwrights Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin talk about Robert F. Kennedy’s evolution from political animal to true believer in his transformative relationship with the civil rights revolution.

Note: Transcript added below.

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Kasia Anderson: I’m Kasia Anderson, Truthdig’s Associate Editor, and joining me for this podcast are playwrights Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin, whose latest joint writing venture, “RFK: The Journey To Justice,” is running this weekend in an L.A. Theater Works production at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Clearly, Horwitz and Estrin had their work cut out for them in writing a play that counts not just Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy among its central characters, but also contemporaries from the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. and Diane Nash.
But as Horwitz explains, he and Estrin managed to keep the scope of the project within reasonable bounds by focusing exclusively on Robert Kennedy and the civil rights movement:

Murray Horwitz: This play, it’s important to specify, is about Robert Kennedy and the civil rights movement, and as we wrote it, we had to exercise great discipline in just making sure we didn’t digress. If it wasn’t in that story, it didn’t belong in the play.

Anderson: At the beginning of “RFK: The Journey to Justice,” we see a Bobby Kennedy whose commitment to the civil rights cause, such as it is, seems rather calculated – more like a political animal’s concern for poll numbers than a true believer’s passion. So how do the playwrights account for the metamorphosis they chart over the course of the play?

Horwitz: What was a little bit elusive is how Robert Kennedy changed, you know, what was it that made him change. And the more people we talked to, the more reading we did … it was possible for us as playwrights to infer, surmise and to write it down and to talk to people and confirm that that was the case and it seems to make sense.

My first answer to your question is — you know, how would I summarize the changes — is come see the damn play, man! That’s what the play is about. So I don’t want to give it away in some ways, but it’s clear that. … You’re exactly right, Kasia. They started out as political animals, as politicians: “How do I manage this issue so that I can get the most black vote without” … (’cause it’s going to be a real close election and it was. It was one of the closest in history. It might’ve been the closest in history up to that point except for 1876; I’m not sure.) “How do I get the maximum number of black votes without alienating the south, which I need to win?” The white south, which is almost redundant, because blacks weren’t allowed to vote by and large in the south. And then, once he becomes Attorney General, something he was somewhat reluctant to do, he says, “Okay, now I am the nation’s top law enforcement officer, I am going to manage, you know, I’m going to be a good lawyer.”

And then a couple of things happened which are dramatized in the play. And there was real drama there with real conflict there were real, you know, places where people died for this stuff. And that, I think, convinced him even before it convinced his brother the president, that this was not necessarily an issue that could be managed. This was a social revolution. This was a … not only did it pursue fundamental change, but after his brother’s death, I think he comes to a realization that it needs to be fundamental change. it requires fundamental change. And so, if you now, there is no quick glib answer to your question, happily, because that’s why we wrote the play. But several things conspired … but the arc… I shouldn’t say “conspired” it’s such a loaded word … combined I should say … but the kind of pathway is from politician to lawyer/official to, really, activist. And he said — and there is a line in the play, you may remember, and he really said this in an oral history in 1964: “I can’t say I stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before 1960.”

Anderson: Jonathan Estrin says that he was drawn to RFK project at a time when Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency was starting to look like a real possibility.

Jonathan Estrin: I think that for me the interest in the subject matter was the degree to which it seemed to me to parallel some things about the Obama presidency. Well, there are two things that interested me: one, the parallel as Bobby became more defined. Because what he ended up representing was a very interesting blend of pragmatic and idealistic at the same time. What was interesting was his journey from being a much more pragmatic and not very idealistic guy in the beginning where he didn’t really particularly care very much about civil rights or know anything about it — it was a low priority and was not on his radar screen — and eventually, over the course of these eight years, became, you know, sort of pushed and prodded and inspired and transformed into the guy who picked up … the banner after Martin Luther King’s death and was really leading the parade. But the Obama analogy for me was really … is that same interesting thing where people project onto a candidate all of the things that they want to see. In the way that, you know, many people mythologize the Kennedys as being more liberal than they actually were. And so I think this is the same thing — everybody wanted to see him as being just idealistic … but he was also an enormously pragmatic guy and not prone to be … to lead a charge up a hill based on sort of a self-righteous position. He was interested in how you actually get things done.

Anderson: According to Estrin, “RFK: The Journey to Justice” isn’t just another Bobby Kennedy hagiography:

Estrin: What we decided we wanted to do early on was to defy everybody’s expectations about a play about the Kennedys. Well, maybe not everybody’s, but most people approach the … expect to see something that is. … Most of the things that have been written about them, quite frankly, if they’re not trashing jobs by people who have a political axe to grind, tend to be kind of hagiographies. They tend to be glorious deifications of them. Like the books that were written contemporarily at the time, you know, “The Making of a President”, which was … a great PR job. It wasn’t really a tremendously accurate history, but it sure looked good.

So we decided I figure, if you’re going to come to see a play about the Kennedys, you’re going to say, “Oh, they were great guys. They were idealistic, they were wonderful — and what a tragedy.” And so, what we said was well, you know, these guys were really hard-nosed politicians. They were brought up by their old man to be really tough politicians and they were in the beginning. And so, what we did is we decided to come up with an opening scene that would right away say… confound everybody’s expectations and so, you know, it’s really. … It’s griping about the fact that they are trying to get the Negro vote and that this guy, this Negro star that they’re after, he wouldn’t have his picture taken with Jack! And it’s just about, “How the hell are we going to get the vote if this guy won’t play ball with us?” And it’s sort of an attempt to define where they are and at the same time say, oop, this isn’t gonna be just a you know, a sort of bedtime story about them. They’re wonderful because they evolved.

The other thing that’s interesting to me about it — I think that it’s an empowering story, because it’s a story of the fact that you really can … that individuals are really capable of transformation. They’re capable of great growth in terms of their conscience, their understanding of humanity, their sense of a … an imperative to be of service and take action and a willingness to be changed. Because, you know, our take on this is that Bobby was dragged kicking and screaming into this initially. You know, he thought that Martin Luther King was a big pain in the ass! This guy was just making trouble for him. Every time he did something, Bobby had to go deal with it, and it was a distraction from what he wanted to do. He was being forced to react to things, and initially it wasn’t … just not the game he liked to play — he liked to call the plays.

And so, you know, there’s … this initial clashing between the two men that’s really interesting. … Oh, that’s another thing that we discovered in the research which was great, which was that when they. … It was actually Harry Belafonte that pointed them towards Martin Luther King as a way to … as a political solution to their problem initially during the campaign, and that was great fun to discover. I thought, where did that came from? And there it was.

Anderson: Horwitz says that, as his legacy suggests, Bobby Kennedy was able to look beyond polling demographics and fully throw his heart into the civil rights cause.

Horwitz: Even if we hadn’t talked to anybody, we would’ve correctly deduced from the empirical evidence and from the record … pointed to the fact that he was the real deal. He was the real thing, and in fact more than one source and more than one person used the phrase true believer. It proved that … he proved that idealism and political skill and savvy could coexist. It is hard to. … I think there, quite frankly, there are a number of people on the political right for whom that’s true. I don’t see a lot of people nowadays who are … but then politics was different. As I say, it has now devolved into marketing rather than politics. There’s a big difference between the two. But you really don’t see, even on the right, you don’t see a large number of people who embrace idealism, who use politics as a way of moving their idealism forward and putting it into practice. Certainly I think the Obama campaign promised that. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to deliver on that promise. But, I think in that sense — I don’t know about legacy, but certainly as an example, Robert Kennedy proved that it was possible.

Anderson: Thanks for listening – again, I’m Kasia Anderson, Truthdig’s Associate Editor, and you can find out more about “RFK: The Journey to Justice” at www.skirball.org.

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