Midway through 1968 there had already been a number of historic events that led to and showed the stunning amounts of civil unrest and chaos that was present in the United States. Walter Cronkite’s reporting of the Tet offensive, various civil rights protests and marches, and Martin Luther King’s assassination are great examples of early 1968 of the social unrest. At this time, a young politician was gaining popularity and support throughout the country running on a platform broadly based on anti-war, racial and civil justice, and social change. This man was Robert F. Kennedy, a former US Attorney General, under his brother John F. Kennedy. Both Kennedy’s in their brief time in office together were big champions and supporters of civil rights.
In 1968 the Tet Offensive caused a big shift in American attitudes about the war in Vietnam to more anti-war. This led to the less widespread support of the incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 election. Robert Kennedy had previously not decided to run in this election because of the perceived popularity of Johnson. But after Johnson’s close win against Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy declare his candidacy. Robert Kennedy’s main platform was one of social and economic justice and a more anti-aggression strategy in foreign conflicts. He was rapidly gaining support that peaked when he won the California primary. But the night of this victory he was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan, and died shortly after.
Robert Kennedy’s assassination was so shocking and frightening to a lot of people especially people of color. They had seen John Kennedy, a huge champion of civil rights himself get shot, Martin Luther King Jr., the biggest characterin the civil rights movement get assassinated two months prior, and at the height of his popularity Robert Kennedy get assassinated. In the span of 5 years, arguably the three biggest figures in the civil rights movement were killed. Juan Romero, who was at the scene where Robert Kennedy was shot, said the event “made me realize that no matter how much hope you have it can be taken away in a second” (Telegraph). That was a common thought process that echoed across large sections of US citizens. There was so much promise for civil rights, whether it was the Kennedy’s in power or the amount of influence that MLK was gaining, but all of those central civil rights figures were killed within five years of each other.
Robert Kennedy’s civil rights platform was not the only thing that endeared him to Americans. To a lot of people, he was someone who would restore their faith in the US and its government after the difficult times in 1968 and with the Vietnam War. The nation was very divided at this point and Kennedy was someone who could restore “Americans’ belief in their integrity and decency” (Clarke). Theodore White a passenger on the train carrying Robert Kennedy during his funeral said when the train “emerged from the tunnel under the Hudson that one could grasp what kind of a man he was and what he had meant to Americans” (Clarke). In total two million people showed up to watch the train carrying Robert Kennedy’s body travel from New York City to Washington D.C. If you look at the people in the crowd, it consists “of young and old, rich and poor, white and black, rural and urban, … and stood as testament to Kennedy’s broad appeal and the deep devotion he inspired across the country” (Berman).
Since his death, Robert Kennedy’s legacy has lived on. Joseph Palermo says that “Kennedy’s words cut through social boundaries and partisan divides in a way that seems nearly impossible today” (Palermo). Eric Holder, the attorney general under Barack Obama, says that Kennedy was his inspiration that the Justice Department “can and must – always be a force for that which is right” (Washington Post). Although Robert Kennedy’s assassination is not talked about as much today as MLK’s or his brother, John’s it still is a huge moment in US history to a lot of people, especially people who lived through it. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is because he was killed when he was so young and he had so much potential and left to do. King had already inspired millions and was seen as the leader of the civil rights movement, John was already three years into his presidency when he was killed, but there was so much left for Robert to do and accomplish, particularly as he was gaining steam in his candidacy. That is the main reason that for people in 1968, his death was a truly shocking moment, but while still being seen as a major event it is not talked about as much as MLK’s or JFK’s assassinations today.
Allen, Nick. “Busboy describes Bobby Kennedy’s final moments.” The Telegraph, 30 August 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11834126/Busboy-describes-Bobby-Kennedys-final-moments.html
Berman, Andrew. “This Day in History: Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated.” GVSHP, 2 June 2013. http://gvshp.org/blog/2013/06/05/this-day-in-history-robert-f-kennedy-assassinated/
Clarke, Thurston. “Robert Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired America.” History NewNetwork,8 June 2008. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/51186
Dionne, E.J. “Eric Holder and Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy.” Washington Post, 28 September 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-eric-holder-and-robert-f-kennedys-legacy/2014/09/28/8c0b7360-45d2-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a0d651e933a0
Palermo, Joseph. “Robert Kennedy Would Be 90 Years Old Today.” The Huffington Post, 20 November 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20160824134143/http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/robert-f-kennedy-would-be_b_8607490.html