'A Mob Asks No Questions': Robert F. Kennedy, May 24, 1961

To honor the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's swearing-in as the 64th Attorney General of the United States, the Justice Department Friday released to the public for the first time online a trove of Kennedy's statements, speeches, and photographs from the winter of 1961 to the summer of 1964, the period in which he served at Justice.

From the first in the series (March 1, 1961, before the House Judiciary Committee, on federal judicial nominations) to the last (August 25, 1964, to the world, announcing he'd consider running for a Senate seat from New York) the online release by the feds of more of the public work of RFK as the nation's top lawyer no doubt will delight and fascinate (and perhaps enrage and befuddle) amateur historians, law professors, Kennedy-philes, and others who now may more easily access Kennedy source material.

I have only begun to go through the list. But right away, one day, one moment in time, popped out at me. May 24, 1961, which turns out to be a very important date in American history. On that date, sometime in the morning, the Attorney General issued the following statement:

A very difficult condition exists now in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. Besides the groups of 'Freedom Riders' traveling through these states, there are curiosity seekers, publicity seekers and others who are seeking to serve their own causes, as well as many persons who are traveling because they must use the interstate carriers to reach their destination.

In this confused situation, there is increasingly possibility that innocent persons may be injured. A mob asks no questions. The Alabama and Mississippi law enforcement officials are meeting the test today, but their job is becoming increasingly difficult.

A cooling off period is needed. It would be wise for those traveling through these two Sites to delay their trips until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored.

Then, at 11:00 a.m. that morning came another statement from Attorney General Kennedy at the Justice Department:

We have been in frequent contact with responsible state and local officials of Alabama and Mississippi. The evidence at this time is that these officials fully intend to see that law and order is maintained and that any new outbreaks of mob violence will be controlled by local law enforcement officers. The leaders of the student groups testing segregation laws in Alabama and Mississippi today were informed that no Federal Marshals would accompany the buses.

The Federal Government's responsibility is quite clear in this situation. Our obligation is to protect interstate travelers and maintain law and order only when local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. There is no basis at this time to assume that the people of Mississippi will be lawless or that the responsible state and local officials in Mississippi will not maintain law and order and protect interstate travel.

We have no power to prevent groups or individuals from traveling in the South, the North, the East or the West. However, we have appealed to all persons in Alabama and elsewhere to use restraint and to weigh their actions carefully -- and the need to do so is even more apparent in the context of the inflammatory situation which exists today.

I feel fortunate not to have yet been born at a time when an Attorney General, the brother of the President of the United States, had to temporize ("The evidence at this time" "There is no basis at this time" "we have appealed to all persons in Alabama") about the ability of sworn lawmen to control mob rule. You can almost hear in the words above the ugly tensions of that day which seem, fifty years on, far more realistic and reflective of America in 1961 than was President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, delivered four months before. Jack may have asked Americans to soar. But soon thereafter, Bobby was there telling them what was what on the ground in the deep South. 

In case you haven't already figured it out, May 24, 1961, a day of angst and frustration for both Kennedys, was the day that 27 "Freedom Riders" were arrested as they tried to go from Montgomery, Alabama, to New Orleans via Jackson, Mississippi. It was a day that begat many other notable days to come in the fight for civil rights.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

Just In