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The Lost, Lingering Legacy of Robert F. Kennedy

Despite his privilege and doubtless power from birth, Robert F. Kennedy became an advocate for the poor and oppressed.

Robert Kennedy addresses an election rally in 1968. (Photo: Celestine Chua / Flickr; Edited: EL / TO)

Forty-six years ago, on the fifth of June, 1968, the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy came to an abrupt and horrific end. Having just given his victory speech after winning the Democratic primary in California, Kennedy was struck by three bullets fired by a man named Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. He clung to life for a time at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, and died early the following morning.

History, as recorded, has a way of focusing on the primary colors of a particular individual’s impact. The Robert Kennedy who is generally known is remembered to be the son of a rich industrialist, the right-hand man of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red-Scare witch hunts, one of the original architects of the Vietnam War debacle, the Attorney General, the Senator, and finally, the brother of an assassinated president. His own run for the presidency in 1968 lasted 82 days, and ended on a dirty kitchen floor in Los Angeles, with his life’s blood pumping into the empty air along with the hopes and dreams and aspirations of millions.

But Robert Kennedy – son of the oligarchy, scion of a family of the ruling elite after his two older brothers were laid low by war and another assassin – was so much more than that. When President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November of 1963, Robert Kennedy was destroyed. Annihilated. Ruined utterly. He disappeared within himself and his overwhelming sorrow for a time, emerging eventually to win a US Senate seat for New York in 1964…and that is when the new, true Bobby Kennedy emerged.

You see, Bobby Kennedy had been a child of exceeding privilege and astonishing power from the moment of his birth. At no point, from his birth until his dying breath, did he ever know want, or hunger, or discrimination. When his brother was murdered in Dallas, however, the comfortable world of Robert Kennedy exploded, and for a time he was lost…and then he found himself anew, reborn, and unleashed himself upon American politics as an avatar for the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, and the hopeless.

The all-encompassing agony of his brother’s murder, the bottomless loss he felt in the aftermath, birthed him again into the real world, and he saw the pain endured by so many people, and shared it as if it was his own, and went to work to try and fix it immediately.

Robert Kennedy, in the mid-1960s, ventured where few American politicians dared to go. He went to rural Mississippi, and saw Black children living in squalor with distended bellies because they were starving to death, right here in America. He went to places like the Pine Ridge Reservation, where Native Americans lived with no jobs, no running water, no electricity, and no hope. He went to the urban core of American cities, where Black youth seethed at the utter disdain the so-called “American Dream” had for them, and reached out his hand, and swore he would make things better.

There are two stories about Robert Kennedy that stand out in my mind, one well-known and the other nearly unheard-of.

The first story, well-known: Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, just as Kennedy’s campaign was getting underway. Kennedy was in Indianapolis, slated to give a speech to a large crowd of Black supporters. When he arrived, no one in the crowd had heard the grim news, and it fell to Kennedy to tell them.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

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 and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future.

It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Every major American city burned that night, as the rage in the aftermath of King’s murder took hold…except Indianapolis.

The second story, far less known: Robert Kennedy had been an advocate for Native Americans since well before his time in the Senate, and had visited a number of reservations over the years. His work was so appreciated by Native Americans that the National Congress of Indians in 1963 adopted him into the tribes, and bestowed upon him the name “Brave Heart.”

During his 1968 presidential campaign, he had only two days to spend in his swing through South Dakota, and over the bellowed protestations of campaign staffers concerned about votes, spent one of those two full days at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He spent the entire day in the company of Christopher Pretty Boy, a 9-year-old child whose parents had been killed in a car accident the week before. Kennedy sat with Christopher for hours, and when he went on a tour of the reservation, held Christopher’s hand the entire time.

One year later, Robert F. Kennedy and Christopher Pretty Boy were dead.

The 1968 presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy centered on two distinct yet inseparable themes: The blood-soaked immorality of the Vietnam War, and the astonishing fact that the richest nation on Earth tolerated the enormous poverty and deprivations suffered by its poorest citizens while vomiting billions of dollars into the bucket of that war. He spent 82 days shouting these desperately uncomfortable truths from the rooftops, until he was laid low.

Forty-six years later, the legacy of his campaign, of his cause, has been all but forgotten. Today, our politicians again wage war for political and financial benefit, ignore the rampant poverty and suffering of the citizenry, and in fact work hammer and tong to devise bold new ways to rob from the poor to fatten the rich. It is all too easy to imagine the better world that may have come to pass had Kennedy not walked into that kitchen, but that, in the end, is fantasy. It happened, and we are here.

There was a time all those years ago when, for 82 days, we were given an opportunity to believe that we as a nation can be better than what we are. The legacy of Robert Kennedy is still there, lying fallow, waiting to be born anew.

The time is just right, and anything – everything – is possible.

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