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Why RFK Sat Stone-Faced as LBJ Signed Civil Rights Act of 1964

Attorney General Robert Kennedy (front row, 6th from right), stares straight ahead as President Lyndon Johnson prepares to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Photo: LBJ Library)

What a bittersweet day it was 50 years ago for Robert Kennedy.  The events of July 2, 1964 should have filled him with pride and gratification. But, as the attorney general sat stone-faced at President Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he could barely bring himself to look at the chief executive. A mere six months had passed since Bobby Kennedy had accompanied his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy, into the same White House space (the East Room), where, still wearing her blood-stained suit, she had brought her assassinated husband home from Dallas.

            Yet Bobby Kennedy was suffering more than a flashback to that horrific day the previous November.  RFK and LBJ maintained a mutual loathing for each other, born of conflicting personalities, styles, and loyalties. Once the Kennedy brothers had ultimately committed themselves to civil rights in June 1963, the legislation that they sent to the Hill would, they hoped, become the centerpiece for ending Jim Crow segregation. Historians will long debate whether JFK might have been successful in the legislative battle against segregationist members of Congress. What remains clear a half-century later is the brilliance of Lyndon Johnson’s strategy to infuse meaning into John Kennedy’s martyrdom by using it to inspire the civil rights bill’s passage. Such effective symbolism, along with Johnson’s unequaled legislative prowess, surely made the difference in crushing conservative opponents on the Hill.

            As President Johnson proudly distributed the pens he used to sign the landmark bill into law, Attorney General Kennedy moved toward the back of the room, while his colleagues eagerly gathered around LBJ to secure a piece of history. Eventually, labor leader Roy Reuther led RFK to Johnson, who awkwardly began passing a handful of pens to the still-grieving brother of the slain president.  Even more annoying to Kennedy, the president began naming Justice Department staffers to whom the A.G. should redistribute the writing implements. You can view a video of this exchange at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-VNL8H6LSs.

            According to journalist and author Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy did indeed send a framed pen to John Doar, his assistant attorney general for civil rights, with the inscription, “Pen used to sign President Kennedy’s civil rights bill.”  He simply could not see the law as the incumbent president’s product. Exactly two months later, RFK resigned from the Johnson Cabinet to run for a New York Senate seat and begin his quest to resurrect Camelot.

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