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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

RFK

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General, Senator from New York, and carrier of the dream. He was shot by a Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, because of Kennedy's support for Israel after the Six-Day War (maybe). He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles celebrating his win in the California primary for President of the United States, a position his older brother John had held, who also died by an assassin's bullet.

I was only seven years old at the time, and have no recollection of these events. Anything I thought about Robert Kennedy was after he was dead. As with any person, he was complicated. He was a tireless supporter of civil rights, but also worked for the Joseph McCarthy committee. He was shy, but also ruthless in his attempt to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice. He may have been the brains behind John, but didn't always get his way--he was fiercely opposed to the choice of Lyndon Johnson as John's vice-president.

What I do remember is visiting his grave on a family trip to Washington, D.C. when I was about twelve. We went to Arlington National Cemetery, and of course visited John Kennedy's grave, which is grand and has an eternal flame. Robert's grave is just a few yards up the pathway, an unobtrusive white cross, which seems to be trying to hide in plain sight.

My father's side of the family were big Kennedy supporters, and I imagine this was a shock to them (I was living in Toledo, Ohio at the time and must have been around them, as they lived about an hour away in Dearborn, Michigan, but I just don't remember). I do know that Andy Williams sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at his funeral, and said that he would never sing that song again. A few years later, the Democratic Party held a telethon, and Williams sang the song again. My great-grandfather was moved enough to donate twenty dollars.

I think RFK's shining moment was the improvised speech he gave the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, just two months before his own. He was campaigning in Indianapolis, and actually broke the news to the crowd, who gasped in horror. There were many riots around the country in big cities with large black populations that night, but many credit Kennedy with stopping any violence in Indianapolis. He said: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."

Kennedy's death, as one would expect, raised all sorts of conspiracy theories. Some claim there was a second gunman, because on the recording they hear 13 shots, and Sirhan's gun only had eight rounds. Evidence was tampered with--one bullet hole was patched up before it could be examined. Whoever killed him they put an end to the dream that a Kennedy would lead us to the promised land (Ted Kennedy's run in 1980 just doesn't did have the same feel). The what ifs are tantalizing--Kennedy, though trailing Hubert Humphrey in delegates, could have won the nominations because most delegates were free to vote for who they chose. Maybe then there wouldn't have been the violence in Chicago. Maybe Kennedy would have beaten Nixon. Maybe...

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