In the wake of the primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney?s effort to ingratiate himself with Southern voters by proclaiming, ?I?m learning to say ?y?all? and I like grits,? has gotten almost as much attention as his third-place showing. Critics have made fun of Romney?s efforts to win Southern voters, but they have also been forgiving. Their assumption has been that changing his way of speaking, like tailoring the issues he addresses, is all part of the political game Romney, like every modern politician, must play.
But we shouldn?t automatically make that assumption. The best counterexample comes from the speech Robert Kennedy, another Massachusetts politician (then a new attorney general), gave in the South at the University of Georgia Law School in May 1961.
If anyone had reason to try to ingratiate himself with his Southern audience, it was Kennedy. In October 1960 John and Robert Kennedy helped get Martin Luther King, Jr. out of a jail in Reidsville, Georgia, after he was arrested during a civil rights protest. The future president called Coretta King to express his concern, and Robert called the judge handing the case to inquire into King?s right to bail. The pressure from the Kennedys worked, and King, who had spent nine days in jail, was suddenly released on a $2,000 appeal bond.
Their actions won them increased black support in the country, but the Kennedys were resented by the white political establishment in Georgia. ?It is a sad commentary,? Georgia Governor S. Ernest Vandiver observed, ?when the Democratic nominee for the Presidency makes a phone call to the home of the foremost racial agitator in the country.?
As he addressed the Georgia Law School, Robert Kennedy was aware of the resentment toward him. ?They have told me that when you speak in Georgia, you should try to tie yourself to Georgia and to the South, and even better claim some Georgia kinfolk,? Kennedy declared early in his speech. Then he went on to disavow that approach, saying, ?I have no relatives here, and no direct ties to Georgia except one: This state gave my brother the biggest percentage majority of any state in the Union, and in the last election that was more important than kinfolk.?
What followed was as candid as he promised. ?I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right,? Kennedy announced, referring to Brown v. Board of Education, and then, while his audience was taking this in, he made it clear that there was no room for evading that decision so long as he was attorney general. ?Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law,? Kennedy declared, before adding, ?You may ask, will we enforce the civil rights statutes? And the answer is yes, we will. We also will enforce the antitrust laws, the antiracketeering laws, the laws against kidnapping.?
We will never know whether Kennedy would have won Georgia in 1968 if he had lived long enough to become the Democratic Party?s presidential candidate that year, but what nobody reading Kennedy?s Georgia Law School speech today can doubt is its importance, or how the chuckles Mitt Romney gets for trying to sound Southern should embarrass us all.