Monday, January 31, 2011

Bobby Kennedy in Harlem


                 I kept looking for the magic scene but maybe it was never filmed.  TLC had a two hour long documentary The Kennedys, Home Movies last night, narrated by Stockard Channing.  And it was powerful, seeing so much promise and tragedy condensed into two hours.  

             Bill Murphy was there and saw it, so this is his story, and I’d like for him to come claim it.  He was a beginning copywriter at JWT, like me, in those Mad Men days and we were friends in the same creative group.  Bill heard Bobby Kennedy was coming to speak in Harlem so he got on t he subway and went to look for himself.

                 When he got out at 125th street, he found a big crowd around Bobby.  A white man in a sea of black faces.  It was Kennedy’s first visit to Harlem and his speech was not going well. The crowd was silent, skeptical.  Kennedy’s flat nasal New England tones sounded alien, wrong, like what the hell did he know about Harlem?

                     So Kennedy said, “would you like to sing a song?”  "Anybody want to sing a song?" No response.  Bobby Kennedy was a brave man.  There was no band, of course, and no music to sing to.  He sang, “WE SHALL OVERCOME.” his tuneless New England voice sailed right past the crowd.  He sang the second line, “WE SHALL OVERCOME.”  No response.  He persevered, “WE SHALL OVERCOME SOMEDAY AY AY AY AYYY.”

                   Murphy had the suspicion that this could turn ugly.  The crowd was not buying a white man singing their song on their street.

              “DEEP IN MY HEART, I DO BELIEVE.  THAT WE SHALL OVERCOME ONE DAY.”  Nothing.  Except a few murmurs.  

               Incredibly Bobby Kennedy started the second verse.  “WE’LL WALK HAND IN HAND.” Nothing, no response.  He sang the second line, “WE’LL WALK HAND IN HAND,” and a couple of voices joined in. By the time he got to the end of the verse the whole crowd was singing with all their heart, recognizing a great heart was there on their street that afternoon.

              You can’t help but think, this would have been a better, different country if they hadn’t shot Jack and Bobby and Martin Luther King.   

               His words sound antique now, too naive for prime time.  But at the time, they promised that the America we learned about in school was true.:

              "This is a generous and compassionate country, that's what I want a country to stand for, not bias, not laws, not disorder, but compassion and love and peace. That's what this country should stand for and that's what I intend to do." RFK


Anonymous said...

Excellent story. Was wondering what your source was for it? I have done some research on RFK and never came across it.

Bob Judd said...

My source was Bill Murphy. Bill and I were young copywriters at JWT at the time. Bill went to the RFK rally and told me the story.

Dwight said...

Is it possible to obtain contact information for Mr. Murphy? I am currently writing an honors thesis on RFK and his first hand account would be very helpful.

Bob Judd said...

I really wish I could contact Bill Murphy. He was a good friend. But I haven't seen him since the mid 1960s when I moved to London for the first time. He's about my age, (74) and worked as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson around 1961-196? But he was gone by the time I returned to JWT NY in 1970. He was married, and living on the lower east side of Manhattan, and I wish I could give you more info. If by a fluke of luck you run into him my email address is I'd love to see him again. Good luck on your thesis.