Fifty Years After
Some events in life have such a profound impact that, even without our knowing, the experience is captured and stored in a separate, distinct place in our minds and memories. There they reside, sights and sounds and feelings still intact and immune to the passage of time.
Everyone has memories like that, related to their own histories and lives. Everyone. But, I think, there are some memories that are shared by generations, tied to events that impacted the entirety of a nation in a single moment.
I grew up in the 1960s in a household with a television that was turned to the news and parents who spoke at length about what was going on in the country. It was a time when the nation was at war. One was being fought in a strange and faraway place named Viet Nam. The other was happening on the streets of cities with names I’d heard all my life. Tens of thousands of miles separated the two places, but, to the mind of a child, at least, to my mind, the two wars seemed similar, if not connected.
Even against a backdrop that was a frightening and confusing blur of violence, there were still events that rose above the fray and took on lives of their own. The first happened when I was eight, and I can still recall the fear I felt at seeing adults cry--adults I’d rarely if ever seen cry, like my mother or my teachers at school. The moment—and the memory—began with five words. “President Kennedy has been shot.”
The second event happened five years later. It was in the spring, and I was working on a science project when a voice came on the news and said, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special report.” By then, I was a month shy of being a teenager and able to understand at a deeper level the sorrow I saw in my parents’ faces when they heard the news that special report contained. I understood the images of riots that filled the nightly news for days afterward. That memory began with a similar sentence as the first. “Martin Luther King has been shot.”
But it was the third event that happened just two months later that hit me with what felt like a punch in the gut. I not only knew the name that was broadcast on the news, I felt like I knew the man, himself. He was the first national figure that, in my young life, seemed to say things that were right and true. He seemed to do things that were good. And when he spoke about the wars—the one faraway and the one at home—he seemed to understand what made them happen and what could make them finally stop. I knew he was important. I could see it in the faces of the black and brown and poor people who showed up by the thousands to hear him speak. I felt it myself when my parents actually let me miss school and, along with my best friend and her uncle, rode the bus to Denver to hear him speak.
And when that similar sentence was spoken, I don’t think I ever really viewed the world in the same way again. Of course, I was just a kid. But, as I imagine might be true with countless other kids my same age or older, I sensed, at some level, that something changed that night. Something was killed. And something told me it would never really come back. “Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
ROBERT FRANCIS KENNEDY
If the Kennedys were the American version of royalty, it would be of the Shakespearean kind, for it can also be said that, in some ways, the relentless ambition of the father ultimately cost him the lives of his sons in a series of tragedies that even his worst enemies described as too much for one family to bear.
It was always assumed that, as the first child—the first son—born, Joe Junior would be the one to fulfill his father’s dream, and he was raised with that mantle on his shoulders. Described as strong, healthy, and a born leader, Joe left Harvard Law School to volunteer as a pilot for the Navy in World War II. Although he’d done his required number of flights and was free to stop flying missions, Joe volunteered for a special, top secret assignment that was as dangerous as it was vital. Joe died on that mission when his plane mysteriously exploded.
The family’s grief was, of course, enormous. As the second born, John became heir apparent to the Kennedy dream. Growing up, he was sick much of his life and was often confined to his bed. Unable to participate in sports with his older brother, Joe, John became a voracious reader. Despite those challenges and, later, suffering from Addison’s Disease and a back so debilitating that he was almost in constant pain, John entered politics, elected first as a senator and then as President of the United States.
Robert, or Bobby, as he was called throughout his life, was the seventh child in the family. More important than that, he was the third of four sons, younger than John by 8 years. Bobby wasn’t like his two older brothers, and they were separated by more than just years. As a young boy, he was small and thin and not particularly athletic or abundantly graced with the Kennedy charm. John often called him “prudish”. His teachers were more critical, saying he was “moody” and “indifferent’ and “unable to stay focused on his studies”. Yet, others who knew the family well describe Bobby as “thoughtful” and “kind” and “the most generous little boy”.
From an early age, Bobby was fiercely loyal to John and seemed to not notice his older brother’s dismissiveness. Although he was also largely ignored by Joseph Sr. who called him “runt” and “soft” and worried aloud that his lack of athleticism would make him a “sissy”, Bobby continued to strive for his father’s approval, as well.
That dogged determination and devotion would ultimately serve him well, for, as he grew older, he worked to become physically stronger and to replace his shy and halting speech with a more confident style. His grades began to improve to the point that many thought he rivaled John in intelligence. And whatever “softness” his father accused him of having was replaced by an almost ruthless aggressiveness that showed itself most in defending members of his family—most especially John—and those injustices he saw in the world. It also served him well when he served as Attorney General to his brother, the president. Of that time in his life, Bobby credits two things for his success: the love he had for John, and the love he received from his wife, Ethel, whom he described as the “springboard” that gave him the confidence to do the things he did.
When John was assassinated, Bobby lost not only his brother but his best friend and the man who was the focus of Bobby’s own political career. To friends, he also expressed a deep sense of guilt for John’s death, first blaming himself for not being able to protect him and then, later, the fear that his prosecution of the Mafia as A.G. had been the motive for assassination. It’s been said that he was truly lost for a while, but, at the same time, knew he was expected to not just carry on, but to go on to do the extraordinary.
When he told members of his family that he was going to run for president, Joseph Sr. was pleased. However, Rose and John’s widow, Jacqueline, were frightened, and it was Jackie who finally put it into words. “Bobby,” she asked, “what if they kill you, too?” It’s not known how he answered her.
When he was first on the campaign trail, Kennedy was described as “aloof” and “less than powerful”. He’d already been elected to the Senate. Campaigning was nothing new. But it’s no surprise to learn that he was aware of constantly being compared to John who had been doing the same thing just eight years before.
And then, something happened when he began to visit the poorer states in the nation. Not content to just stand and make a speech, he insisted on traveling to some of the poorest and most rural areas of Mississippi and Appalachia, going into people’s houses, shaking their hands, holding their children and listening to what they had to say about their lives. His presence had enormous impact, and he was impacted, as well, as the loving compassion that had been hidden for so long finally emerged. He became warm and was known for just naturally reaching out to stroke the cheeks of little children or to briefly take the hands of the elderly in his own as he passed. His speeches became deeply inspiring as he talked of the importance of peace and justice and equality and love.
He was on his way to a campaign stop in Indianapolis when he heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. A massive crowd waited for him at a rally, none of whom knew of MLK’s death. Mayor Richard Lugar told him not to go, that his officers couldn’t guarantee his safety and he could be hurt—or worse—in the riot that was sure to break out. But Kennedy insisted that he and his people go on and go on alone, without police. He broke the news and the crowd reacted in anguish. But he kept speaking. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling," Kennedy said. "I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. We have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."
That speech, which only lasted 4 minutes, was the first time Bobby had spoken publicly about John’s assassination. It’s considered to be one of the great political speeches of the 20th century.
And in the days following King’s murder, 100 cities broke into massive riots with multiple buildings burned and thousands of people hurt. Indianapolis was not one of them.
Exactly two months later, Bobby Kennedy won the California primary, a victory most people took as a sign that he would win not just the primary but the presidential election. After addressing a jubilant crowd of volunteers and supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he left the podium and was headed to a room where the press were waiting. The place was so crowded he could barely move forward so, at the last minute, he veered off, intending to go through the kitchen. His wife, Ethel, got caught up in the crowd behind him. Other men who were normally at his side were still jostling to get up to where he stood shaking the hands of kitchen staff. That’s when Sirhan Sirhan, a small, wiry man in his mid-20s stepped forward, pulled a gun he had wrapped in a napkin and started firing, the barrel of his gun no more than a foot from the back of Bobby’s head. Bobby staggered and fell to the ground.
Absolute pandemonium broke out, and the first person to kneel at Bobby’s side was Juan Romero, a 17 year old busboy. Within moments, Ethel reached Bobby who, still conscious, looked at her and asked, “How bad is it?” She simply comforted him, stroking his face, whispering that it would be all right. Someone slipped a Rosary under Bobby’s hand.
It took ten minutes for medical help to arrive. When they moved to lift him on the gurney, Bobby just said, “Please don’t. Please don’t lift me.” He then closed his eyes and slipped into a coma. Those would be the last words he would ever say.
Bobby Kennedy passed away at 1:44 in the morning on June 6th, roughly 24 hours after he’d been shot. The coffin carrying his body was flown to New York and taken to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the family had a private service. At dawn the next day, the doors were opened for the public. More than one hundred thousand people had gathered in the night, and they continued to stand there through the day despite stifling heat and humidity, all for just a glimpse of the coffin. They were silent, overcome and yet united in their grief. They were a crowd that was…America. Teenagers next to the elderly, people of color, people who were poor and dispossessed, men in three piece suits next to construction workers in hard hats. For hours and hours, they waited in silence for a chance to reach out, to perhaps touch the gleaming white coffin and say good-bye.
Bobby’s coffin was put on a train that, in the tradition of Lincoln, carried him, along with his family and friends, the 227 miles to his final resting place at Arlington Cemetery. For the entirety of the journey, all 227 miles, both sides of the tracks were lined with mourners. Some carried flags. Some saluted. Some held signs that said “So Long, Bobby”. And some simply cried.
The train finally arrived, four and a half hours late, and the body of Robert Francis Kennedy was laid to rest in a place not far from his brother, John. He was buried at 11:34 on June 8, the only burial in history to be held at Arlington Cemetery at night.
The words spoken at his funeral by his younger brother, Ted, express, perhaps better than any others, the life and the legacy of Robert Francis Kennedy who was among us for just 42 years.
“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. Let him be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, who saw suffering and tried to heal it, who saw war and tried to stop it. As he said many times, ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’ Those of us who loved him and will take him to his place of rest hope that what he was and what he wished for others will, someday, come to pass for all the world.”