Other politicians called them hopeless causes.
But Robert Francis Kennedy refused to believe there weren’t remedies, not just for urban poverty but for the problems that for generations had bedeviled the miners who drilled into the Appalachians for increasingly elusive coal; the Indians who were this country’s earliest and most invisible inhabitants; and, a group he came to know early in 1966, the migrant workers who picked but didn’t share in the bounty of lettuce, grapes and other harvests of America’s agribusinesses.
In the last instance, especially, he resisted getting involved. He was busy with a hundred other things, and attending a hearing of a committee he didn’t serve on, on an issue he didn’t know anything about involving a strike by farmworkers against California grape growers, would mean another trip across the country.
But his friends at the United Auto Workers had said he should go. So Kennedy found himself on a plane out West. Shown where the workers lived and labored – in housing that lacked running water and heat, without a minimum wage or protection from pesticides, with their children picking beside them in the fields – he quickly sized up the situation.
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“This,” he said, “is worse than Mississippi.”
Then it was a matter of how to help. This before college students and suburban liberals had begun to rally support for the farmworkers. Political friends were hard to come by, particularly among officials who lined up on the side of wealthy growers.
Kennedy showed whose side he was on at the March hearing in the grape-growing town of Delano, held by the Senate’s Migratory Labor Subcommittee. Kern County Sheriff Leroy Gaylen, who was the migrants’ arch foe, testified that he had arrested 44 picketing workers to protect them from strikebreakers who were threatening violence, which Gaylen thought could touch off a riot.
It didn’t take long for the senator from New York to revert to his familiar form as an outraged prosecutor.
“How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law?” he asked.
“They’re ready to violate the law,” Gaylen answered.
“I suggest during the luncheon period that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States,” Kennedy said.
That alone made him a hero to the farmworkers, who had never seen anyone question the arbitrariness of law enforcement. He forged a connection that day with Cesar Chavez, the farmworkers’ leader.
“They’re standing in a parking lot and they just start talking to each other,” Kennedy aide Peter Edelman remembers. “There starts to be this circle of people around them, and then it’s two deep and three deep. … It just took a five-minute conversation and they were friends for life.”
This Kennedy brother related to the poor – and to migrants in particular – the way the novelist John Steinbeck had in “The Grapes of Wrath,” trying to see the world through their eyes.
“Robert didn’t come to us and tell us what was good for us,” Dolores Huerta, a Chavez confidante, told me. “He came to us and asked us two questions. All he said was, ‘What do you want? And how can I help?’ That’s why we loved him.”
That love was requited in 1968, when Kennedy was running a crusadelike campaign for president. Half of his advisers implored him to tone things down before the critical primary in California. Hold fewer rallies in the cities with less crowd frenzy, they said, and focus more on the white working-class Democrats who were escaping to the exurbs.
Instead, he fell back on his instincts, doing more, not less, barnstorming in strongholds of Mexican Americans, urban blacks and wage-earning whites into whose hands he was thrusting his fate.
For his part, Chavez temporarily called off his strike and boycott, and assembled an army of volunteers for Kennedy.
Buoyed by unprecedented turnouts and majorities in Mexican American and black districts, Kennedy scored a clear-cut victory over Wisconsin Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
For the first time since he’d jumped in, Kennedy believed he could do it. He was assembling a unique coalition, of Donald Trump-style angry whites and Hillary Clinton’s liberals, African Americans and Hispanics. He was on his way to becoming the tough liberal – or perhaps the tender conservative – that America still yearns for.
Larry Tye is the author of the newly released “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” from which this column was excerpted. He will give talks in California listed at larrytye.com.