Ethel Kennedy attends HBO’s “Ethel” New York Premiere at Time Warner Center on October 15, 2012 in New York City

*There are numerous anecdotes recounted in the HBO documentary “Ethel” that illuminate the seldom-discussed personal lives of  Ethel Kennedy and her late husband Robert Kennedy, but two memories are particularly noteworthy for underscoring his long-held commitment to racial equality.


In 1951, the newly-married Robert Kennedy was finishing his final year at the University of Virginia law school and serving as head of the Student Legal Forum, an organization that brought notable speakers to campus.

One of the speakers invited was Dr. Ralph Bunche, a political scientist who a year earlier had become the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize – earned for his late 1940s mediation in Palestine. At the time, UVA was segregated and most of the student body and surrounding community were angered by Dr. Bunche’s invitation.

“Everyone agreed that the safest –imagine having to use the word safe, so appalling – the safest place for him to stay was at our house,” Ethel Kennedy recalls in the documentary. “He was so charming and non-complaining, but they did throw things at our house all night long.”

Dr. Ralph Bunche

“It was so unthinkable and outrageous, but you got a little taste of what black people in our country had to go through at that time,” Ethel, 84, tells her youngest daughter Rory, the film’s interviewer and director. “I was glad I was married to Daddy, who had that courage and forethought to have someone of color speak at Charlottesville.”

Another poignant story recounted in “Ethel,” premiering Thursday at 9 p.m., is daughter Kerry Kennedy’s memory of being 3 or 4-years-old in her dad’s office in 1963, when he was the U.S. Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy.  At the time, Robert had just sent his Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to the University of Alabama to persuade Gov. George Wallace to literally remove himself from the schoolhouse door and allow African American students James Hood and Vivian Malone to enroll.

Nick Katzenbach (R) with arms folded, confronts Gov. George Wallace at the door of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa

Katzenbach was on the phone with Kennedy from Tuscaloosa when suddenly Bobby asked him if he wanted to speak to Kerry.  Now just imagine – a deputy attorney general in the midst of an explosive racial situation in the deep South, on the phone trying to make small talk with a 3-year-old.

Both sides of that awkward conversation were caught on camera and shown in the documentary.  But more importantly, Kerry recalls how several days later, on June 11, her father wrote her a letter saying in part, “Today, over the objection of the governor of Alabama, two Negroes were allowed into the university. I hope these events are long past when you get your pretty little head to college.”

Daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 61, recalls of the letter, “Here’s Daddy making sure that we were engaged and knowledgeable about what he was doing; and felt a connection – and I think, a responsibility – to make sure that when we were in college, we were still knowing what was going on in the world, and if there was discrimination, fighting it.”

Ethel Kennedy and Rory Kennedy attend HBO’s “Ethel” New York Premiere at Time Warner Center on October 15, 2012 in New York City

Below, Rory Kennedy, 43, talks about the experience of making the film, sitting down with her mother and siblings and discovering things about the family that she had never known.

“Ethel” premieres Thursday, Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. on HBO. Watch the trailer below.