A Cocktail Party in 1963

In honor of Martin Luther King Day:

Writer, musician and OffBeat contributor Ned Sublette recently sent an email commenting on Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, and its focus on Belafonte’s activism. Sublette writes:


For me, the book’s most compelling moment is Belafonte’s eyewitness account of the May 24, 1963 cocktail party arranged by James Baldwin for Attorney General Robert Kennedy to meet “some representative black voices.” It was thrown into turmoil by the young New Orleans CORE member and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith (now an elder in New Orleans, I had the privilege of interviewing him for The Year Before the Flood), who, inconveniently spoke truth to power.

As quoted by Belafonte (this is a selective excerpt; read the full account in the book, beginning on p. 267):

Finally the young man said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail-party patter. What you’re asking us young black people to do is pick up guns against people in Asia while you have continued to deny us our rights here.” . . .

Bobby was stunned. The one thing he took for granted was that all Americans would be patriotic if confronted by a common enemy.

Jerome Smith

Trying to ease past the awkward moment, James Baldwin asked Jerome how he felt about picking up a gun to fight for America if it actually declared war. “Never!” Jerome cried. “These are poor people who did nothing to us. . . . “

“You will not fight for your country?” Bobby retorted. “How can you say that?”

Back and forth went the tense exchange, until Jerome said that being in this living room with Kennedy made him want to vomit. . . .

An account of the meeting was leaked to the New York Times, where a story ran the next day, and I’d barely finished the New York Times story the next morning when Martin called. He wanted every detail of the evening with Bobby. “Disaster,” I said with a sigh. But when I relayed Jerome Smith’s fighting words, Martin had a different view. “Maybe it’s just what Bobby needed to hear,” he said…