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

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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.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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