Robert F. Kennedy would have been 85 years old today. As a new park opening on the site of his assassination shows, though he died over 40 years ago, he still remains a source of hope and inspiration.
While the death of President John F. Kennedy is often seen as the symbolic moment when the nation lost its post-war afterglow and plunged headlong into the tumult of the 1960s, it was also a time when America came together as a nation in mourning. The assassination of President Kennedy's younger brother Robert less than five years later, however, seemed another terrible sign that the nation was falling apart. The despair, confusion and anger spawned by his death have diminished with time, and now Robert Kennedy is remembered as an icon of idealism who still inspires 85 years after he was born.
Although JFK's murder plunged his younger brother into deep grief, RFK campaigned and was elected to the Senate in the fall of 1964. Previously, as Attorney General, his long-running battles with organized crime and union labor helped enhance RFK's aggressive image. He'd also built a reputation as a fighter for the poor and oppressed, and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, there's little doubt that the Kennedy name and the shadow of JFK's assassination contributed to RFK's status as a rising star of the Democratic Party.
In the years after JFK's death, however, the American cultural and political landscape changed dramatically. The escalating Vietnam War divided the nation. The Civil Rights Movement won major victories, but also lost its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., to an assassin's bullet. With race riots erupting in urban areas and generational conflicts tearing apart homes in suburbia, many felt the country was on the brink of a cultural civil war.
In March of 1968, sensing growing public opposition to Vietnam, RFK entered the presidential race on a platform opposing the war and advocating for the poor and support of minority rights. The Democratic nomination became a contest among Kennedy, Vice President Herbert Humphrey, rival anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy and Alabama's "Dixiecrat" governor George Wallace.
(Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
RFK was a polarizing presence in 1968, an impassioned, charismatic figure whose optimism and liberal ideology deeply resonated with many of the nation's young people. Some older, more conservative voters viewed him as a ruthless political opportunist and economic liability who lacked experience.
Though he entered the race late, RFK rapidly gained momentum, winning contests in Indiana, Washington and Nebraska. When he narrowly beat McCarthy in the key California primary, many felt that the Democratic nomination – if not the presidency itself – was within his reach.
But America would never find out. On the evening on June 5th, after delivering a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot three times at close range while greeting supporters in the hotel's kitchen. The gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, was a Palestinian immigrant upset over RFK's support of Israel. Kennedy died a day later.
His death, coming so soon after Dr. King's, left much of the nation despairing and disillusioned, feeling robbed of hope and filled with anger. Two months later, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be overshadowed by chaos and violence in the streets. Richard Nixon would be elected president that year, and American forces would remain in Vietnam until 1975.
(Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
For many, the campaign of President Barack Obama recalled that of Senator Robert Kennedy in its anti-war message, idealism and youthful appeal. Obama’s rival for the nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton, invoked RFK by controversially citing the events of June 5, 1968, as a reason to extend her campaign into the summer. Paul Schrade, one of the five other people wounded in the attack on RFK, actively stumped for Obama. RFK’s brother, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, also endorsed Obama, while three of Robert Kennedy’s children made public their support of Clinton.
In September, 2010, The Robert Kennedy Inspiration Park and the Robert F. Kennedy community schools were opened at the former site of the Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was assassinated. Today, the finishing touches on the $578 million project have been put into place and a public reception featuring contributing artists May Sun and Richard Wyatt will be taking place. More than forty years after he delivered that final victory speech in California, Robert Kennedy remains one of the great inspirational figures in American political life.