While the death of 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 Bobby Kennedy less than five years later, however, took on a different tone.
Coming just two months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the killing of Robert F. Kennedy seemed another terrible sign that the nation was falling apart, and his death multiplied the despair, confusion and anger of an already tumultuous time. Decades later, there remains a lingering feeling of ‘what might have been’ had RFK survived and become president. Though he never reached that highest office, RFK continues to be remembered as an icon of idealism and still inspires today, 50 years after his death.
When his older brother was assassinated in November 1963, RFK was plunged into a deep grief. Nevertheless, he campaigned and was elected to the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1964. Previously, as Attorney General, his long-running battles with organized crime and union labor had 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 was changing dramatically. The escalating Vietnam War divided the nation. The civil rights movement won major victories, but would also lose its leader MLK to an assassin’s bullet in April 1968. With race riots erupting in urban areas and generational conflicts tearing apart homes in suburbia and elsewhere, 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 minority rights. The Democratic nomination became a contest among RFK, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, rival anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy and Alabama’s “Dixiecrat” governor George Wallace.
RFK was a polarizing presence in 1968. He was an impassioned, charismatic figure whose optimism and liberal ideology deeply resonated with many of the nation’s young people. Meanwhile, many 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, RFK 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 the candidate’s support of Israel. RFK 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.
As a U.S. Senator, RFK fought for civil rights and social justice, supporting integration and voting rights. He sought to eliminate poverty by providing education, health care and employment opportunities for our country’s poorest citizens, and he was a voice for human rights in our foreign policy as well. As he campaigned for president in 1968, his platform seemed a natural continuation of—and in many cases, improvement on—his brother’s too-short presidency. When his life was cut short, it left us wondering, for nearly half a century now, what might have been. And it inspired those who followed, from his brother Sen. Edward Kennedy to President Barack Obama, to carry on RFK’s legacy of justice.
Originally published June 2008