Seeking help from Senator Robert Kennedy on changing 1965 Immigration Act


Of course not all organizations were equally hospitable to our message in the beginning. The Irish Institute had a scheduled dinner in the spring of 1967. It was to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore (now the Hyatt Regency) and the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late President was the scheduled guest of honor.

We sought permission to have four or five of our immigration committee information cards placed on each table at the dinner. Usually organizations had been offering us free space for an immigration message in their souvenir journals. The Irish Institute had not on this occasion but they had previously favored us with free office and meeting space, so we couldn't complain. Nevertheless, we wanted our cards on the dinner table. The decision to make the request originated at one of our general meetings. Fr. O'Callaghan and I approached Martin Killeen, the Institute President and requested his permission. He replied in the affirmative. As he did so, Mrs. Nora Doherty wife of the Institute Building custodian overheard our request. Mrs. Doherty, a fiery lady from County Limerick (who operated air charters to Ireland in her spare time) and her husband, Bill (a man of contrasting quiet demeanor) lived in an apartment at the Institute. She, the custodian, told the president in no uncertain terms that the cards would not be on the table. They would appear she said, "over her dead body and if they appear, I  will set fire to them." She seemed to mean it. Mr. Killeen stood mouth open, in shock. Fr. O'Callaghan and I were embarrassed for Martin Killeen's sake and retreated.

No doubt Mrs. Doherty was simply seeking to prevent any embarrassment to Se. Kennedy and the Institute. The  policy behind the 1965 Immigration Law was the original suggestion of his brother, the late President. In fairness however, the law as adopted was not as his administration originally suggested. Nevertheless the Irish were being hurt as a result of a Kennedy administration proposal. Mrs. Doherty, no doubt reasoned- and she was far from being alone in this regard- that we were being critical of the Kennedys-we were blaming them.

This suggestion was to arise again over the years. We tried to make it clear that we were not attacking the Kennedys but we were calling the shots as we saw them.

Word of Mrs. Doherty's action got around. It reached the ears of Jack McCarthy, a native Corkman, a business manager of the Carpenter's Union, a member of the Irish Institute and one who already had paid for one or more tables at the forthcoming dinner. Jack was a man who didn't mince words. A bit rough and ready but with a heart of gold. He had offered many an immigrant a job in construction and a suggestion that the immigrant do something about furthering his education and get out of construction work.

While we were prepared to leave the card issue drop, Jack was not. He told us and the Irish Institute, in no uncertain terms that the cards would be on the tables or if they were not, he planned to ring the hotel, on the night of the dinner, with carpenter's union picket line.

In short order, we received an answer from the Institute that the cards would be more than welcome on the tables and that it was important that I attend the dinner. I was to be give a complimentary ticket for one of the tables. It was correctly assumed that if I was in the dining room a the dinner, there would be no picket line. I attended and during the pre-dinner festivities someone fetched me from the common folk, took me to an ante-room and asked me to pose in a small group photo with Senator Kennedy.

At that stage of our work, I was not yet brash enough to question the Senator about immigration on such an occasion. I was never to see him again as he soon after was assassinated.

The whole experience provided a lesson, one of many that we would receive.