"We know that it is law which enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos. We know that law is the glue that holds civilization together. And we know that if one man's rights are denied, the rights of all others are endangered"— Robert F. Kennedy, 1961

About the Exhibit

President Kennedy's appointment of his 35-year-old brother Robert Francis Kennedy as the attorney general of the United States was controversial. According to many, Robert Kennedy, the youngest attorney general since 1814, lacked experience in practicing law. But he silenced the critics by assembling a skilled and dedicated staff, and by promoting innovative and aggressive programs to enforce civil rights, combat organized crime, improve legal access for the poor, and develop new approaches to juvenile delinquency.

 

 Hearing of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations. Chief Counsel Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy listen as Senator Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota questions a witness. May, 1957.

Robert Kennedy’s influence in the administration extended well beyond law enforcement. Though different in temperament and outlook, the President came to rely heavily on his brother’s judgment and effectiveness as political adviser, foreign affairs counselor, and most trusted confidant. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, Robert Kennedy became an intimate adviser in intelligence matters and major international negotiations. His efforts during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 were crucial in shaping a peaceful outcome.

 

 

Equality Before the Law

Under Kennedy's leadership, the Justice Department litigated 57 voting rights cases, opening southern polling booths to thousands of black voters, and assisted in ending segregation in interstate transportation and in integrating over 1,100 school districts. In 1963, RFK championed before Congress new civil rights legislation to guarantee access for all citizens to public accommodations, to accelerate desegregation of public schools, and to halt discrimination in all federally funded programs.

Fighting Organized Crime

"To meet the challenge of our times, so that we can later look back upon this era not as one of which we need be ashamed but as a turning point on the way to a better America, we must first defeat the enemy within."—Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Kennedy brought to the Justice Department a reputation as a relentless fighter against crime and corruption. As Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate’s “Rackets” Committee he had direct experience of the influence of organized crime on America’s economy and government. Upon entering office he was determined to change the department’s previous neglect of these issues and assigned a high priority to an aggressive campaign against mobsters.

Through speeches and writing, such as his book The Enemy Within, he alerted the country to the existence of a “private government of organized crime with an annual income of billions, resting on a base of human suffering and moral corrosion.” He established the first coordinated program involving all twenty-six federal law enforcement agencies to investigate organized crime, overcoming FBI indifference to the pursuit of racketeers. Robert Kennedy's anti-racketeering legislation, passed in 1961 and 1963, and the emphasis he placed on the investigation and prosecution of organized crime, led to dramatic increases in convictions.

Exhibit Highlights

The centerpiece of the exhibit are documents and personal items of Robert Kennedy's placed atop a desk as they would have been on a September day in 1962. Among the items are the Attorney General's glasses, pens and pencils, his original telephone, bookends, and drawings taped on the wall from his young children. Also on display: 

Teamster's Truck

 
A toy Teamster's truck presented to Robert F. Kennedy, Chief Council to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, and Senator John F. Kennedy, a committee member were presented as evidence of corruption within the Teamster's Union.  It was mandatory that Teamster truck drivers purchase such toys.  More than $84,000 in profits from such sales were then transferred into the private bank account of Dave Beck Jr., son of the union's president. 
U.S. Marshal's Helmet A helmet worn by one of the U.S. Marshals sent to protect James Meredith as he became the first black student to register at the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1961. The dent in the helmet resulted from a blow by a lead pipe wielding rioter.  Many of the U.S. Marshals sustained injuries in the rioting by those who sought to block Meredith's enrollment.  Robert Kennedy kept this helmet on a table behind his desk.
Bust of Winston Churchill A bust of Winston Churchill by Leo Cherne (American Sculptor, 1912-1999). Robert F. Kennedy displayed this bust of Winston Churchill and an autographed copy of Churchill's We Shall Never Surrender speech to the House of Commons in his Attorney General's office.

See more exhibit highlights in the Attorney General Exhibit Highlights Slideshow.