Week thirty-NINE
A Ripple of Hope: 
Remembering Robert F. Kennedy

On June 4, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, two months after Dr. King's assassination. Historians believe the combination of these two deaths was a "capstone to a year marked by angry demonstrations, political violence, and a degree of polarization that foreshadowed the dark divisions of our own time."(1) 

On April 4, 1968, Kennedy was scheduled to give a presidential campaign speech in a predominately African American section in Indianapolis, IN. As his plane landed in a thunderstorm, he was given the tragic news of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, TN. Senator Kennedy's aides emphatically encouraged him to cancel the rally due to extreme riots and uprisings happening across the country in cities including Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York. In pouring rain, Kennedy broke the news of Dr. King's death, eulogizing the slain civil rights leader. For the first time publicly, Kennedy spoke out about his brother's tragic death. His brother, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas five years earlier. Kennedy closed his compassionate speech quoting his favorite poet,  Aeschylus. 

He said "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop up on the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." The once tough and hard-nosed Attorney General had evolved into a voice for the youth, the poor, and an advocate for peace around the world.

Robert F. Kennedy Campaign.  Photo Courtesy of APR

Robert Francis Kennedy, the seventh of nine children, has been referred to as the "runt" of the famous and influential Kennedy children. After successfully running JFK's presidential campaign, he was appointed as the Attorney General of the United States. Throughout his brother's short administration, RFK recovered from battles such as the Bay of Pigs, successfully avoided nuclear war in October 1962's Cuban Missile Crisis, and gradually began advocating for the rights of African Americans during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. 

After his brother's death, RFK ran and won the Senate race in 1964 in New York. There, he worked for victims of overwhelming poverty in the city. Additionally, he became close allies with Cesar Chavez and aided Delores Huerta's work with the National Farm Workers Union. At the insistence of Marian Wright Edelman, Kennedy traveled to the Mississippi Delta in early 1966 to observe to people suffering from immense poverty. In line with his more progressive stance, he broke his silence to stand against the Vietnam War. 

Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16, 1968, confirming the rumors that had been swirling. After suffering a defeat in Oregon in late March, he won the Democratic Primary in California on June 4, 1968. Just minutes after securing the victory, RFK was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. He died 26 hours later.

Robert F. Kennedy was referred to by some as "America's last hope." His assassination proved to be the end of an era in which men of power who advocated for peace and justice were shot down before catalyzing radical change. Had RFK not been murdered, it would be difficult to argue that as president his political goals would not have had an enduring, positive effect on social justice in America and worldwide. 

Today, many are influenced by his actions for civil liberty, equality, and social justice. Attorney General Eric Holder credits Kennedy as his inspiration for believing the Justice Department "can - and must - always be a force for that which is right."(2) 

Kennedy's populist message was grounded in bringing equality across all racial lines, and his bold language for civil rights remains impactful. Are we lifting up leaders like Kennedy and King who exemplify a passion for, and a lifestyle embedded in, peace and justice? In a climate of uncivilized discourse, how do we regain decorum to mobilize citizens toward a peaceful democracy today? See the action items below to see how people are interacting with RFK's legacy fifty years later.

  1. Peniel Joseph, "RFK's Legacy Is Still Alive Today," CNN, June 5, 2018.
  2. Eric Holder, "Remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder Announcing His Plans to Depart Justice Department," The United States Department of Justice, September 25, 2014.

Learn more, DO more!
  1. To learn more about Robert F. Kennedy's legacy 50 years later, listen to this WBUR podcast.
  2. The Ambassador Hotel, the site of RFK's assassination, could have become a high-end real estate development project. Instead, a group of local advocates fought to create a development that benefitted the surrounding under-served neighborhoods. "In its place is a kind of living memorial to his ethos of social justice and fairness to everything from immigration to the environment." Read more about this incredible Community Schools project
    Photo courtesy of APR.
  3. Congressman Joe Kennedy III, grandson to RFK, paid tribute in early June 2018. "In shadows, in the background, in the quiet spaces that rarely sought or got attention, Robert Kennedy found the arteries of our American heart, and he said to those forgotten, 'Your country sees you. Your country values you. American would not be American without you' . . . He was human and willing to be vulnerable. It was his greatest gift to give." View the full speech.
  4. One of the most important things we can do in the fight for equality is to participate through voting. There is a national mid-term election in November. Have you registered to vote? Learn how to registerYour voice matters, and every single vote counts!

Were you or someone you know born in 1968 when Dr. King and Senator Kennedy were assassinated? Did it urge you to try and create the change that both these men stood for and died trying to do? 
What actions did you take? 
 Share your story.