Today in 1968, New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot just after midnight at a prominent Los Angeles hotel, mere moments after speaking on live national television to a large campaign rally.
His assassination shocked the country, coming just two months after the murder of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both killings devastated a nation, already drained by a contentious election year, a disastrous war in Vietnam and a decade of violent cultural upheaval both racially and socially.
Many historians agree that the fading dreams of youthful idealism and peaceful optimism that swept the nation during the 1960’s finally ended on that bloody June night. The decade of peace, love and flowers gave way to a bitter summer of urban warfare that played out in the nation’s streets and on the world’s television screens.
Only with the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing would America return to that brief spirit of common goodwill that had been the goal of Robert Kennedy and his older brother, the late President John F. Kennedy.
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925 in Boston, Massachusetts, the seventh child and third son of prominent businessman Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife Rose. His early childhood was spent at the family’s mansion outside Manhattan with spring and summer vacations in Hyannis Port and Palm Beach, Florida.
Young Bobby was 12 when his father was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He attended public and private school in the U.S. and U.K. and served in the United States Navy Reserve from 1944-1946. After graduating from Harvard University in 1948, Kennedy earned a law degree from the University of Virginia an was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951.
A tenacious lawyer with boyish good looks, Bobby Kennedy achieved national prominence as campaign manager for his brother John F. Kennedy’s successful U.S. Senate run in 1952.
Later, at the height of the Red Scare, Kennedy hounded communists as a U.S. attorney in the Justice Department and later fought organized crime within the trade unions as chief counsel for a Senate subcommittee on racketeering. Teamster’s boss Jimmy Hoffa reportedly remarked that Kennedy had a “psychotic mania to get me at any cost.”
Kennedy returned to his brother John’s side when the Massachusetts senator ran for President in 1960 against Republican vice-president Richard Nixon. After a grueling campaign, John F. Kennedy was elected President in one of the closest races in U.S. history. Bobby immediately assumed the role of chief confidant and advisor to the President, assisting him in selecting a cabinet.
While Bobby entertained the idea of running for Governor of Massachusetts, President Kennedy, dismissing nepotism concerns, offered him the position of Attorney General.
It was in this office that Robert F. Kennedy would begin a rise to the forefront of national and international affairs, standing by President Kennedy during the disastrous Bay of Pigs event, amidst the violent struggle for civil rights in the American South and later as a negotiator with Soviet leaders during the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Following President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, a grieving Bobby was kept on as Attorney General by President Lyndon Johnson as a part of his effort to continue the policies of the slain President. Bobby served in this capacity only nine months before leaving office in 1964 to defeat Republican Kenneth Keating of New York for the U.S. Senate.
Robert Kennedy was an observant Roman Catholic. He married Ethel Skakel in 1950 and fathered eleven children; he also remained close to his sister-in-law Jacqueline, widow of President Kennedy, and her two children.
As a U.S. senator, Bobby Kennedy found his own voice and cause by advocating welfare reform and fighting for increased federal funding to wipe out poverty in rural states like Mississippi and West Virginia. Kennedy met with labor leader Cesar Chavez in support of migrant workers and spearheaded the Criminal Justice Act of 1964. He also traveled throughout Latin America as a part of the Alliance for Progress.
“What is required of us,” Bobby told crowds, “is that we do more than recite these accomplishments and talk of dreams fulfilled… we must be prepared to work a revolution… the question is whether we have lifted our eyes to the new horizons of our days, and to the uncharted oceans beyond.”
An early advocate of the Vietnam War, Kennedy opposed the conflict by 1967, calling the use of napalm against Vietnamese villages “immoral” and arguing that total military victory was impossible and misguided.
Robert Kennedy’s passionate desire to change policy on the highest political levels led him to consider entering the presidential race of 1968. His initial hesitation changed with President Johnson’s bombshell announcement that he would not seek re-election. Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16th of that year.
Friends and advisors were divided over an RFK race. Ethel Kennedy urged her husband to run, as did Democratic leader George McGovern, while Bobby’s younger brother Senator Edward Kennedy feared the race would cause problems with the already fragmenting Democratic Party.
Minnesota’s Senator Eugene McCarthy was also running on an anti-war platform and had attracted many disillusioned college students looking for change. Party liberals feared Kennedy and McCarthy would split the anti-war vote while conservatives and moderates in the party feared this would divide the Democrats and give Republican candidate Richard Nixon a clear advantage. Some reporters and Kennedy staffers also worried that Bobby’s powerful proposals and dramatic outspokenness would get him assassinated.
Presidential primaries were fewer and less significant in 1968; there were only fourteen scheduled. Kennedy faced McCarthy (fresh from a win in the Wisconsin primary) in contests in Indiana, Washington D.C., Nebraska and Oregon.
While campaigning in Indianapolis on April 4, Kennedy was alerted of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. He gave the stunning news to the crowd and tried to calm their anger. In an especially moving speech, captured by TV crews, he reminded the frenzied audience that his brother had also been killed by a white man and he challenged them to an effort of understanding, “to go beyond these difficult times… and to say a prayer for our country and our people.” He marched in King’s funeral procession five days later.
Robert Kennedy’s campaign, though awkward and late, picked up momentum as he soundly defeated Eugene McCarthy in Indiana and pulled ahead of Johnson’s replacement Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in the Washington D.C. contest. On May 14, he won significantly in Nebraska with 51% of the vote to McCarthy’s 31%. He lost in Oregon.
One historian writes, “(Bobby’s) liberal agenda appealed to the young politically active generation, and the Kennedy name and good looks afforded him near rock star status among his constituency.” His vision carried great appeal with African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities and he attracted a broad base of support.
The energetic senator’s next stop was California; its 174 delegates were crucial in his quest for the Democratic nomination. Bobby traveled hundreds of miles within the state, greeting jubilant crowds in both the Mexican and African-American ghettos, still reeling from the King assassination. He debated Senator McCarthy June 1st in San Francisco and launched a series of positive campaign ads. Early returns in South Dakota’s primary on June 5 put him ahead of both Humphrey and McCarthy.
That night, as polls began to close in California, Kennedy and his pregnant wife greeted supporters in the ornate Embassy ballroom of the magnificent Ambassador Hotel, located on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, home of the popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The euphoria was contagious as CBS announced Kennedy’s lead at 8:30 p.m. The final returns came three hours later: Robert Kennedy won California with 46% of the vote to Eugene McCarthy’s 42%.
“I think we can end the divisions in the United States,” he told the boisterous audience, as confetti and balloons fell from the ceiling, “What I think is clear is that we can work together in the last analysis… we can start to work together again. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country… So, my thanks to all of you, and it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” The senator finished by flashing a “V for victory” sign.
Kennedy left the podium on his way to the Colonial Room for a press conference. He walked down a narrow hallway towards a kitchen surrounded by a mob of aides, TV cameramen, hotel staff and reporters. Waiting just inside was 24-year-old Jordanian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, a man with a “unshakeable obsession” to kill Robert Kennedy. He lunged forward, firing eight shots from a .22 caliber pistol into the Senator’s entourage.
Pandemonium broke out in the cramped kitchen and quickly spilled out into the ballroom floor where panicked aides scrambled to find a doctor. Kennedy was hit three times, the first bullet fatally lodging in an artery in his brain. Five others were wounded. A busboy kneeling beside Kennedy amid the chaos, reported that his final words were “Is everyone all right?” The bleeding Senator, clutching a Catholic rosary, was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital where he died the next morning. He was 42 years old. “The joyous adventure,” as one Kennedy campaign worker had called it, was over.
A Los Angeles Police Department investigation determined tha Sirhan acted alone. Conspiracies of a cover-up continue to abound, often rooted in Robert Kennedy’s long list of political enemies, from the Mafia and labor unions to pro-war and pro-Communist groups. Sirhan opposed Kennedy’s vocal support of the state of Israel and this has been suggested to be his most likely motive.
Robert Francis Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, steps away from President John F. Kennedy’s grave.
The Democratic Party’s 1968 hopes for the White House quickly disintegrated after Kennedy’s death as fighting between radical militant and anti-war factions made it all the way to the floor of the party’s chaotic national convention in Chicago. By the time the smoke and tear gas cleared in November, voters grasping for some form of authority in the general election abandoned Democratic front-runner Hubert Humphrey in favor of Richard Nixon.
Secret Service protection was extended to all presidential candidates immediately after Kennedy’s assassination. An LAPD escort had been denied by campaign officials and only a few private security guards were present at the hotel the night of June 5. Kennedy himself shunned personal security and often disregarded his safety by wading into thick crowds, his way of showing trust in his supporters.
Sirhan Sirhan pled guilty was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. This was changed to life imprisonment in 1972 and he remains behind bars today at the California State Prison. He was denied parole for the 13th time in 2006.
The Ambassador Hotel was demolished in 2005, amid some protest, to make way for the expanding Los Angeles County school district.
Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy continues exactly 40 years after his death.
Ethel Kennedy has never remarried. She continues to live at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port surrounded by 23 grandchildren and financially supportive of many anti-poverty projects founded in memory of her late husband.
Of Robert Kennedy’s eleven children, his two oldest also entered politics. Kathleen Kennedy served as Lt. Governor for Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Joseph Patrick Kennedy III served as U.S. representative for Massachusetts 8th District from 1987 to 1999. Bobby Kennedy’s youngest child Rory, born six months after his death, is a documentary filmmaker.
In 2001, President George W. Bush renamed the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.
Robert F. Kennedy’s life is best summed up by Senator Edward Kennedy’s eulogy at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “As he said many times in many parts of this nation to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say, why not.’”
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