Bobby was a man with principles that believed in American justice. He was a lawyer, he believed in the power of American law, in the rights of people and the necessary role of the government in protecting those rights.
When Martin Luther King Jr. and his Freedom Riders were besieged by a mob of white supremacists in Montgomery, Alabama. Kennedy was faced with a decision that did not make sense for him politically.
He was about to send the Federal troops in to protect the Freedom Riders. It was not the politically expedient thing to do, JFK had just won Alabama’s electoral college votes, the majority of the state was white and conservative. Supporting King’s ACLC and the Freedom Riders would be very unpopular. The ire of Southern conservatives could scupper any further political ambitions for the Kennedy’s.
Yet he did it. He commented to his aide, tasked with deploying federal forces, ‘it’s more important that these people in the church survive physically than for us to survive politically.’ (Arsenault, Raymond, Freedom Riders : 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice)
In a later speech he stated,
‘Our position is quite clear. We are upholding the law. The federal government would note be running the schools in Prince Edward County any more than it is running the University of Georgia or the schools in my home state of Massachusetts. In this case, in all cases, I say to you today that if the orders of the court are circumvented, the Department of Justice will act. We will not stand by or be aloof — we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 decision [Brown V. Board of Education] was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.’
The law is a rich tradition of holding a standard of behavior. We have not always succeeded in ensuring that all men and women are equal under the law, but we are certainly getting better.
I will protect the right of free speech for those I do not agree with, because in doing so I am protecting the integrity of my own rights.