LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Looking back at Robert F. Kennedy

June 6 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Kennedy, who was, like his brother, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.

He was only 42 years old when he died, and was running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Had he lived, he might well have been elected as the 37th president (instead of Richard Nixon), and our country might be a very different place today.

As campaign manager, RFK was the architect of his brother’s two most significant political victories: the upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race of 1952 and his narrow margin over Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. He then joined his brother’s cabinet as attorney general, and became the point man for the administration in dealing with the issues of desegregation and civil rights, most notably at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963, where Gov. George Wallace literally “stood in the schoolhouse door” to try to block the admission of two remarkable young heroes, Vivian Malone and James Hood.

Bobby then urged President Kennedy to speak to the nation directly on television about the issue, and to take the politically risky step of introducing and promoting a civil rights bill. The attorney general then took the lead in the effort to persuade the Congress to pass the bill.

As he put it in a speech in Philadelphia a couple of weeks later, “These are moral issues, not legal ones. … The stifling air of prejudice is not fit to breathed by the people of a nation that calls itself free. … This is a national crisis, and it is immediate.’’ A month later, testifying before the Senate, he asked, “How can we say to a Negro in Jackson: ‘When a war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you’re a citizen of Mississippi and we can’t help you?’” One year later, the bill became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After his brother’s murder on November 22, 1963, Bobby was plunged into despair and depression, and never fully recovered from his profound grief and sense of loss. But he eventually decided to go into politics himself to carry on his brother’s mantle, and was elected senator from New York in November, 1964. He had always in the past worked unselfishly — and often behind the scenes — to promote his brother’s interests.

Now, as he entered the final chapter of his remarkable life, his exceptional capacity to learn, grow, and change—and his amazing empathy for others—turned him into a truly inspiring leader and statesman

He had always been curious about how other people lived, and he became increasingly disturbed and enraged by what he saw. As one of his biographers, Larry Tye, puts it: “Experience transformed him. He came to understand poverty the way a novelist might,…(by) sitting on the floor of a shotgun shack in the Mississippi delta trying to connect with a starving toddler. It was the same with farm workers and coal miners.”

As he traveled around the country and the world, he began to focus on the problems of poverty and injustice, very much as Dr. Martin Luther King was doing. Indeed, by the time he ran for president in 1968, it would be very difficult to differentiate between their speeches.

He encouraged Dr. King in his plan for a “Poor People’s Campaign” in Washington, and in one of the first speeches of his presidential campaign—in which he, against all odds, challenged a sitting president of his own party, Lyndon Johnson—he spoke to an audience of students at the University of Kansas about “these other Americans.—I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled by hunger…with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation….I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.

“I have seen Indians living in their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs…and with so little hope for the future that for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death is suicide…. If we believe that we , as Americans, are bound together with 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.”

Speaking to relatively privileged college students about the problems and difficulties of the poorest of Americans was hardly calculated to win votes; but Robert Kennedy was determined to speak the truth to his countrymen, and he had faith in both their intelligence and their compassion. Like his brother Jack, he always appealed to our better angels, and unlike Richard Nixon, who wound up being elected president that year, he really DID want to “bring us together.”

No other American politician in 1968 could count on votes from both the young AND the old, white working class AND African-Americans, and those who wanted “law and order” AS WELL AS those who believed in strong government action to remedy the problems of the inner cities. Also, unlike Richard Nixon, he really WAS determined to end the war in Vietnam.

His last public words were, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” He had just won an impressive victory in the California primary — as well as an overwhelming victory in South Dakota, the original home state of his chief rival, Vice President Hubert Humphrey (LBJ had withdrawn from the race).

The chances were very good, since he was now clearly the strongest possible candidate for the Democrats, that he would have been nominated at the Chicago convention. But he, and the country, never got that chance, and his loss, exactly two months after that of Dr. King’s, was perhaps the cruelest blow of that shattering year.

If RFK had been elected president 50 years ago, the war in Vietnam would likely have ended, saving countless lives; there would have been no Watergate scandal, and our present-day divisive and polarized politics might have died aborning.

We have missed you for a half-century, Bobby —- maybe now more than ever.

Daniel Pritchett
Dover

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