Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), also referred to by his initials RFK, was an American politician, a Democratic senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Kennedy family, he was a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and acted as one of his advisors during his presidency. From 1961 to 1964, he was the U.S. Attorney General.
Following his brother John's assassination on November 22, 1963, Kennedy continued to serve as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson for nine months. In September 1964, Kennedy resigned to seek the U.S. Senate seat from New York, which he won in November. Within a few years, he publicly split with Johnson over the Vietnam War.
In March 1968, Kennedy began a campaign for the presidency and was a front-running candidate of the Democratic Party. In the California presidential primary on June 4, Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. Following a brief victory speech delivered just past midnight on June 5 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Mortally wounded, he survived for nearly 26 hours, dying early in the morning of June 6.
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Considered an eloquent speaker generally, Kennedy also wrote extensively on politics and issues confronting his generation:
"The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee's Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions" (1960)
"Just Friends and Brave Enemies" (1962)
"The Pursuit Of Justice" (1964)
"To Seek a Newer World" (1967)
"Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis" (1969)
"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
"Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change."
"The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."
"Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not make revolutions. It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed."
"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not."
"Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
"At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. "But suppose God is black", I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" There was no answer. Only silence." South Africa, June 1966
"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 or lawlessness; but 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 they be black." Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968, announcing to the crowd that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
"Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it." From his last speech, June 5, 1968
"Laws can embody standards; governments can enforce laws—but the final task is not a task for government. It is a task for each and every one of us. Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted—when we tolerate what we know to be wrong—when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy, or too frightened—when we fail to speak up and speak out—we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice." June 21, 1961
"...We must recognize the full human equality of all our people-before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous-although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it-although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."
Civil rights As Attorney General
Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School:
" We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. "
In 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hated civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and viewed him as an upstart troublemaker, presented Kennedy with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists. Concerned that the allegations, if made public, would derail the Administration's civil rights initiatives, Kennedy warned King to discontinue the suspect associations, and later felt compelled to issue a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization. Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so", Hoover extended the clearance so his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy. The wire tapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968, days before Kennedy's death.
Assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a brutal shock to the world, the nation and, of course, Robert and the rest of the Kennedy family. Robert was absolutely devastated, and was described by many as being a completely different man after his brother's death.
In the days following the assassination, Kennedy wrote letters to his two eldest children, Kathleen and Joseph II, saying that as the oldest Kennedy family members of their generation, they had a special responsibility to remember what their uncle had started and to love and serve their country.
Kennedy was asked by Democratic Party leaders to introduce a film about his late brother John F. Kennedy at the 1964 party convention. When he was introduced, the crowd—including party bosses, elected officials and delegates—applauded thunderously and tearfully for a full 22 minutes before they would let him speak. He was close to breaking down before he spoke about his brother's vision for both the party and the nation, and recited a quote from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.2) that Jacqueline Kennedy had given him:
" [...] and when [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
1964 New York United States Senatorial Election
Robert F. Kennedy (D) 53.5%
Kenneth Keating (R) (inc.) 45.4%
Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign, 1968
See also: United States presidential election, 1968 and 1968 Democratic National Convention
In 1968, President Johnson began to run for reelection. In January 1968, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent President, Senator Kennedy stated he would not seek the presidency. After the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in early February 1968, Kennedy received a letter from writer Pete Hamill that said that poor people kept pictures of President Kennedy on their walls and that Robert Kennedy had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls". Kennedy traveled to California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez who was on a hunger strike. The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy announced to several aides that he would attempt to persuade little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to withdraw from the presidential race. Johnson won a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, against McCarthy, which boosted McCarthy's standing in the race.
After much speculation and reports leaking out about his plans, and seeing in McCarthy's success that Johnson's hold on the job was not as strong as originally thought, Kennedy declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate office building—the same room where his brother declared his own candidacy eight years earlier. He stated, "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can."
McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Kennedy as an opportunist, and thus the anti-war movement was split between McCarthy and Kennedy. On March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race with the support of the party "establishment", including most members of Congress, mayors, governors and labor unions. He entered the race too late to enter any primaries, but had the support of the president and many Democratic insiders. Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries.
Kennedy stood on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power and social improvement. A crucial element to his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality. A good idea of his proposals come from the following extract of a speech given at the University of Kansas.
"If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America. And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
Kennedy's policy objectives did not sit well with the business world, in which he was viewed as something of a fiscal liability, opposed as they were to the tax increases necessary to fund such programs of social improvement. At one of his university speeches (Indiana University Medical School) he was asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?", Kennedy replied to the medical students, about to enter lucrative careers, "From you." It was this intense and frank mode of dialogue with which Kennedy was to continue to engage those whom he viewed as not being traditional allies of Democratic ideals or initiatives. He aroused rabid animosity in some quarters, with J. Edgar Hoover's Deputy Clyde Tolson reported as saying, 'I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch.'
It has been widely commented that Robert Kennedy's campaign for the American presidency far outstripped, in its vision of social improvement, that of President Kennedy; Robert Kennedy's bid for the presidency saw not only a continuation of the programs he and his brother had undertaken during the President's term in office, but also an extension of these programs through what Robert Kennedy viewed as an honest questioning of the historic progress that had been made by President Johnson in the 5 years of his presidency. Kennedy openly challenged young people who supported the war while benefiting from draft deferments, visited numerous small towns, and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches (often in troubled inner-cities). Kennedy made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part led to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia.
On April 4, 1968, Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave a heartfelt, impromptu speech in Indianapolis's inner city, in which Kennedy called for a reconciliation between the races. Riots broke out in 60 cities in the wake of King's death, but not in Indianapolis, a fact many attribute to the effect of this speech.
Kennedy finally won the Indiana and Nebraska Democratic primaries, but lost the Oregon primary. If he could defeat McCarthy in the California primary, the leadership of the campaign thought, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one against Hubert Humphrey (whom he bested in the primary held on the same day as the California primary in Humphrey's birth state, South Dakota) at the Chicago national convention in August.
Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Kennedy scored a major victory in winning the California primary. He addressed his supporters shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut, despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his bodyguard, FBI agent Bill Barry. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian-born Jordanian, opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver. Kennedy was hit three times and five other people also were wounded. George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and former professional football player Rosey Grier are credited with wrestling Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after Sirhan shot the Senator. Following the shooting, Kennedy was first rushed to Los Angeles's Central Receiving Hospital and then to the city's Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning. Sirhan said that he felt betrayed by Kennedy's support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun exactly one year before the assassination.
His body was returned to New York City, where it lay in repose at Saint Patrick's Cathedral for several days before the Requiem Mass held there on June 8. His brother, U.S. Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, eulogized him with the words:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'
The quote is actually a paraphrase of a line spoken by the devil (The Serpent) to Eve in George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah: You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?'
The Requiem Mass concluded with the hymn, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung by Andy Williams. Immediately following the Requiem Mass, his body was transported by a special private train to Washington, D.C. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations along the route, paying their respects as the train passed. This slow transport delayed arrival at Arlington National Cemetery, causing it to be the only night burial to have taken place there.
Kennedy was buried near his brother, John, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.). He had always maintained that he wished to be buried in Massachusetts, but his family believed that since the brothers had been so close in life, they should be near each other in death. In accordance with his wishes, Kennedy was buried with the bare-minimum military escort and ceremony. The casket was borne from the train by 13 pallbearers, including former astronaut John Glenn, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, family friend Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Robert's eldest son Joe and his brother Senator Edward Kennedy. In August 2009, Senator Edward Kennedy was also buried at Arlington, near his brothers John and Robert.
The procession stopped once during the drive to Arlington National Cemetery at the Lincoln Memorial where the Marine Corps Band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The funeral motorcade arrived at the cemetery at 10:30 p.m. Archbishop Terence Cooke of New York and Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, conducted the brief graveside service. Afterward John Glenn presented the folded flag on behalf of the United States to Ethel and Joe Kennedy. (coordinates: 38.88118°N 77.07150°W)
On June 9, President Johnson assigned security staff to all U.S. presidential candidates and declared an official national day of mourning. After the assassination, the mandate of the U.S. Secret Service was altered by Congress to include Secret Service protection of U.S. presidential candidates.