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Remembering Robert F. Kennedy - Fifty Years Later

By Rebecca Price Janney, Jun 5 2018 12:39PM

If there was ever a rotten year in American history, 1968 ranks right up there in the top ten. Maybe the top five. I wouldn’t object if the year was nominated for the worst one ever since 1607’s Jamestown Settlement.

That was the year all hell broke loose—the brutal Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, cities writhing and burning with racial unrest, campus riots, a bloated, powerful government led by an ineffective President, the psychedelic drug culture, moorings coming undone on many levels of society. If those were not enough to invoke Edvard Munsch’s “The Scream,” two political assassinations brought the nation to its collective knees, within two months of each other.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th. Many advised Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was running for president, not to make a scheduled appearance in a black ghetto of Indianapolis. They couldn’t guarantee his safety if the crowd rioted. He went anyway. In those days before 24/7 news and the internet, Kennedy walked into a situation in which most people had not yet heard that King had died.

When Kennedy arrived, he mounted a flatbed truck and began speaking from his heart, saying that MLK had been killed. People shrieked, and cried out. After a few moments, he spoke again. For the first time since 1963, he publicly mentioned the death of his brother, President Kennedy, identifying with their pain. He concluded:

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. . .(Let us) dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world."

He asked the crowd to pray for the nation and its people, then he left. The people departed, quietly. Not so in more than 100 U.S. cities where the night passed in a maelstrom of rioting.

The following day, RFK told a group in Cleveland, “No one–no matter where he lives or what he does–can be certain whom next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.”

Were these words unknowingly prophetic? They certainly were uncanny.

Shortly before midnight on June 4th, “Bobby” Kennedy entered the Ambassador Hotel’s ballroom in Los Angeles to give a victory speech. He’d just won the critical California Primary, and his talk was punctuated with humor about his dog and some of his friends. Then he left, taking a short-cut through the hotel’s kitchen to get away from the teaming crowd to meet with the press and supporters. Sirhan Sirhan came out of the shadows and started firing his revolver. A little over 24 hours later, Robert F. Kennedy died at Good Samaritan Hospital.

During my teens and early 20s, RFK was my undisputed hero, although I hadn’t remembered him from my childhood. As I read about his life, I came to admire the way he overcame being “the runt” of the Kennedy clan, how he fiercely protected the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden, his recovery from his brother’s brutal death, his ardent faith in God.

Five decades later, as I remember him and his terrible death during that horrendous year, I’d like to quote my favorite of his sayings, one he borrowed from playwright George Bernard Shaw. Robert Kennedy’s brother Edward quoted it at the end of his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering, and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world. 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?’”

Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968
Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968
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