Bobby Kennedy was shot on this day in 1968, why we should talk about it
6 June marks the 52nd anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s death
Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy was the younger brother of John F Kennedy. He was the U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964 during his brother’s truncated presidency, and a U.S. senator from New York from 1965 to 1968.
His legacy has typically been associated with his work to prosecute organised crime and corruption in the labor unions and the advance of the civil rights movement. During Bobby’s lifetime America was embroiled in the Cold War, with American troops in Vietnam, and racial segregation was still in effect in much of the American south.
In our own times of pandemic, protest, and societal disintegration we may be tempted to think our own times have no historical precedent, that this moment is uniquely and cruelly placing American lives and livelihoods at risk.
That is untrue, or at least very naive.
The struggle for human rights and equality under the law have a 300 year tradition. There are many, many black men and women who have lost their lives because of racial prejudice. And there are thousands more who died in defense of America and her values during the wars of the 20th century. They died fighting Nazis, the Viet Cong and the Taliban.
If the last two weeks have been any indication, we are doing a very poor job of educating Americans about their own history.
The blatant disregard for facts and nuance has created a social media vacuum in which all of the complexities and difficulties which accompany the history of race in America have been unsatisfactorily condensed into a few hundred characters.
The figure of Bobby Kennedy is remarkably unsuited to such diminution. His life spanned one of the most turbulent periods in American history and his close relationship to politics and power left an indelible legacy in the American legal system, on the governing powers of the attorney general, and in the landmark Civil Rights bill of 1964.
In the fall of 1962, Bobby sent thousands of federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce the desegregation of the University of Mississippi, protecting the rights of James Meredith, who became the first black student admitted to the University. Meredith’s enrollment had prompted riots at the school, and Kennedy sent federal troops to guarantee his right of admission.
As we look back now at those turbulent times, the deployment of troops on american soil was the right decision. It was necessary for the protection of innocent people and their right to education.
In the last week, the horrific death of George Floyd brought about a cry of anguish and anger so strong that it ignited protests in almost every American city, across European capitals, and on every virtual platform. The outrage and condemnation was righteous and unanimous. What followed next perhaps was more surprising. Black neighborhoods destroyed by rioters and looters, police officers injured and killed, shops destroyed and looted, millions of dollars of damages; hundreds injured; violence and death; and millions of voices joined in a strangulated cry for justice.
The rights and wrongs of this past week will be debated by historians for years, in the next few months political blame will be allotted and portioned out along party and ideological lines. It seems it will likely be unproductive. It will re-entrench the lines which were already drawn and expand the distance between black and white, between republicans and democrats, between liberals and conservatives.
More dangerous yet, it could damage to an irreparable degree the vision of what America is, and what it stands for.
I doubt very much that most of Americans have read the Constitution since they left school. I doubt that they know the names of the people who worked to pass the Civil Rights bill in the 1960s. I doubt that they know how many Rosa Parks there had to be before the Rosa Parks became a national campaign for desegregation. I fear that in a few weeks time we will all have moved on and forgotten George Floyd, because we are addicted to feeling of outrage, the exhilaration of joining a virtual mob, and the self-righteousness of having an opinion.
Bobby Kennedy was a man deeply committed to justice. His Catholic faith demanded it of him, and his political principles guided his pursuit of it. The test of his principles was in holding to his beliefs when it was not popular, and he did not have much support.
When we stand and look back at our role in the protests this week, will we be equally clear in our values? Will our behavior hold up to the unforgiving analysis of retrospection? Were our actions guided by principles, or manipulated by mobs and media?
Does hatred for one man shape how you treat your fellow citizens? Do you believe that we are all equal under the law? Or that some are more equal than others?
Bobby Kennedy didn’t get it all right, he wasn’t a saint. The Kings and the Kennedys’ had, at times, an adversarial relationship. They had different ideas for America, they had different personal ambitions and responsibilities. Neither was forced to bow down or capitulate to the other, they worked together on issues where there views aligned, because they had a common vision of the American dream.
Bobby was a man with principles that believed in American justice. He was a lawyer, he believed in the power of American law, in the rights of people and the necessary role of the government in protecting those rights. When Martin Luther King Jr. and his Freedom Riders were besieged by a mob of white supremacists in Montgomery, Alabama. Kennedy was faced with a decision that did not make sense for him politically. He was about to send the Federal troops in to protect the Freedom Riders. It was not the politically expedient thing to do, JFK had just won Alabama’s electoral college votes, the majority of the state was white and conservative. Supporting King’s ACLC and the Freedom Riders would be very unpopular. The ire of Southern conservatives could scupper any further political ambitions for the Kennedy’s.
Yet he did it. He commented to his aide, tasked with deploying federal forces, ‘it’s more important that these people in the church survive physically than for us to survive politically.’ (Arsenault, Raymond, Freedom Riders : 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice)
‘Our position is quite clear. We are upholding the law. The federal government would note be running the schools in Prince Edward County any more than it is running the University of Georgia or the schools in my home state of Massachusetts. In this case, in all cases, I say to you today that if the orders of the court are circumvented, the Department of Justice will act. We will not stand by or be aloof — we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 decision [Brown V. Board of Education] was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.’
King’s assassination came two months before Bobby’s. Kennedy was 42 when he died. He was assassinated by a man who disagreed with American policy in Israel. Kennedy was in the midst of a presidential primary, his campaign was based on the hope of a more equal, a more free society for all Americans. The potential of his presidency is woven tightly with the tragedy of his death.
King and Kennedy may not have agreed on every point of policy, but they agreed on the promise of America. In the hope and belief that the rights enshrined in the American Constitution were a great project of optimism, designed to bring men away from the tyranny of an aristocratic system and towards a more free and equal society. American democracy did not give rights to men out of benevolence, but recognized the rights which every human being possessed by birth; regardless of skin color, sex, creed, or ethnicity.
The story of America is the story of an ongoing process of expanding and extending fundamental freedoms and rights to all of society.
Quite rightly we all know of the times that the nation has failed, and failed desperately, in the promise of freedom and justice for all. Failed in its preservation of the pursuit of happiness and freedom of expression. But we must recognize that it is not some abstract form of a ‘system’ that has failed, but Americans, people, individuals, who made decisions which disregarded their own principles. It is Americans who have protested against those people and actions, who have worked to make America better and more expansive in the protection of rights.
If we lose hope in the principles and ideals which are enshrined in our legal system, in our mode of governance, in our Constitution and the jurisprudence of 300 years which have sought to improve and expand on the spirit of that vision, then we have lost America. We have lost what it is to be a nation.
Robert Kennedy Jr, on an Instagram live on the 4th of June 2020 described in tragic detail the death of his father Bobby Kennedy.
He was there. He held his father’s hand as he died. He was 14 years old.
Bobby Kennedy had 11 children. He only met 10 of them. Rory Kennedy was born the December after his death.
11 children had to grow up without a father because of an act of political violence.
Along with his family, Robert Kennedy Junior accompanied his father’s body from Manhattan to Washington DC. The journey should have taken 2 hours, instead it took 7.
Two million people crowded the tracks to say farewell to a beloved and charismatic man.
This week, America laid to rest another black man, another victim of police brutality. George Floyd's 6 year old daughter will have to live her life without a father.
Millions have watched and mourned the cruel senselessness of his death. The potential of George Floyd's life, of how he might have shaped his community and supported his family has been extinguished.
In the aftermath, its clear that we should mourn also the violence which has gripped our news and feeds. We have lost the rich American tradition of diversity of thought, we have lost the ability to work on common issues but retain individual viewpoints. Some people have lost hope for America altogether, they have been told that American ideals are rotten to the core, tainted with racism. They see nothing redeeming in the project of democracy.
They have been told that the system is rigged, and they believe that, therefore they have no qualms about burning it down. They place no value on individual life, only on the chauvinism of their good intentions and their self-righteousness.
While once the decision to protest and riot would have been taken as matters of great moral seriousness, now they are fueled by tweets and scurrilous accusations, with no one held to account for misinformation, and no leader capable of uniting and organising around a common goal.
There are many that delight to see American streets ablaze and her reputation for freedom sullied. I hold to the hope that they are not the majority.
Moving forward, we should educate ourselves on the history of America, on the values and ideals which we champion, on the nobility of her institutions and the strength of the individuals that worked to protect and expand the rights of every human being.
We must also acknowledge the failure to live up to those principles. We must see clearly, without ideological bias or selfish myopia, the history of America as it was, not as we wish it to be.
We must force America to live up to its highest ideals. We must see ourselves as part of a noble experiment. A democratic experiment in which all men are created equal.
We should avoid the seduction of the notion that we can advance as a culture if we leave the poor and the marginalized behind.
Take the risk of being vulnerable to your neighbors. Listen to them, and speak your own truth. Don’t be silenced by a mob. Don’t make decisions based on what is easiest for you, what is politically expedient, what will earn you adulation from your followers.
Believe in the promises of America, renew your hope in the many, many heroes who make your neighborhood and community better. Choose peace instead of division. Encourage all of those you encounter that we share a love for America, and a determined hope that we must do better.
We must also remember those who saw injustice and tried to use their voice and power to eradicate it.
As we commemorate the assassination of Robert Kennedy today, we are faced again with the matter of commemorating and memorializing another American whose life was cut tragically short.
9 months after the assassination of John F Kennedy, after the death of his brother, Robert Kennedy delivered an address to the Democratic party at the 1964 Democratic convention.
The party applauded him for over twenty minutes before allowing him to speak.
He was meant to introduce a film that had been made about JFK. Bobby was on the verge of tears when he ended his speech with a quote from Romeo and Juliet