Features This Week in History

This Week in History: RFK and a legacy of hope

1968 was a tumultuous year. As the Vietnam War escalated during the Tet Offensive in January and turned tragic at My Lai in March, violent protests over the war engulfed the United States. Student protests flared up in West Germany, Paris, Mexico and elsewhere across the world. Not soon after, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April and Richard Nixon was elected US President in November. In December, Apollo 8 orbited the moon and captured the “Earthrise” photograph. And on June 6th, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles – symbolising for many the exact point at which the early idealism of the 1960s finally gave way to the dark cynicism of the 1970s.

Robert Kennedy is often overlooked in US political history. In part, this is due to his being overshadowed by his older brother John, whose election to the Presidency in 1960 signalled for many a seismic change for the US – and indeed the world. Gone were the old leaders of the 1950s, embodied by President Eisenhower, and the lingering post-war mentality they carried with them. A new generation of leaders had emerged, concerned with the future rather than with the past.

When JFK was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, it seemed like the burgeoning hopes of that generation were quashed. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, made a show of honouring his legacy with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and made his own ambitious plans with his “War on Poverty”. However, this was soon overshadowed by the escalating US involvement in Vietnam that had begun under Kennedy but would define Johnson’s Presidency.

The death of his older brother had a profound impact on Robert Kennedy. His early involvement in McCarthyism and an assertive approach as Attorney General during the Kennedy administration reflected a strong ambition and determination that garnered him the disapproval of Lyndon B. Johnson as well as others. Although he continued to serve as Attorney General under Johnson until 1964, it seemed unclear to many (and even himself) what he would do next.

The answer came on August 25th, 1964, when Kennedy announced his candidacy in the New York senatorial race. His candidacy was initially met with scepticism. Kennedy was viewed as an outsider who was only running in New York to further his political career as some suspected a future Presidential candidacy was possible in the future. He addressed some of these concerns during an event at Columbia University. He simply said, “I’d like to just be a good United States Senator. I’d like to serve.”

As Attorney General, he had been a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. As Senator, his commitment to aiding disaffected groups across the country grew. Within New York, his focus was on housing and poverty, where he helped to start the Bedford-Stuyvesant redevelopment project that predominantly aided minorities. Kennedy supported anti-poverty social programs and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He went to Mississippi, where he visited some of the poorest parts of the country, and California during Cesar Chavez’s hunger strike in 1968 – acts that seemed small but garnered symbolic weight and national media coverage. In 1967-8, he also advocated increasingly for an end to US involvement in Vietnam, to President Johnson’s ire.

Kennedy’s visit to South Africa in 1966 during Apartheid stands out, where he spoke out against the oppression of the native population. In Cape Town he held a speech in which he said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, […] or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and […] those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

This reflects the idealism and optimism that had defined JFK’s presidency and the determination to stand up to injustices that was at the heart of Robert Kennedy’s appeal. But more importantly, in all his meetings with civil rights leaders, activists like Cesar Chavez and impoverished Americans he visited across the country, he displayed a remarkable level of compassion.

One factor that haunted the Kennedys throughout their political life was an aura of entitlement and privilege that came with the family name. Robert Kennedy was able to ease some of those concerns by demonstrating an ability to empathise and connect with those less fortunate than himself.

Another reason Robert Kennedy is frequently overlooked is because he represents one of the great “what ifs” of the twentieth century. In March 1968 he declared his candidacy for President after Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention not to run for a second term. The famous and charismatic Kennedy is now considered likely to have won the Democratic nomination from Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to win it, and perhaps even to have won the Presidency against Nixon in 1968.

But his life was cut short when he was assassinated in Los Angeles during a campaign event on June 6th, 1968. After the death of his brother 5 years earlier and Martin Luther King Jr.’s two months before, Robert Kennedy’s death shocked the nation. Much speculation surrounds his death to this day.

Was his assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, really acting alone? Were other forces behind the killing? Was Sirhan even the killer? And more tantalising: What would America look like today if Kennedy, who stressed unity and hope had become President, instead of Nixon?

During a speech, Kennedy once cited a quotation by George Bernard Shaw: “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why. I dream of worlds that never were and ask why not.” It is this emphasis on hopeful, compassionate and idealist politics and governance that have made Robert Kennedy an inspiration to people across the world fighting for a better future.

In 2020, when things feel much akin to 1968, we could all stand to dream a little and ask ourselves, “Why not?”


Image: Robert F. Kennedy via Wikimedia Commons