RFK: 50 Years Later

by francis russo | 6.15.18


Below is a short introduction followed by the excerpted words of Robert F. Kennedy, from speeches he gave during the final months of his life, in 1968.


e were in such a dark period then, in the United States of America,” said Dolores Huerta, a Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist, and a friend and supporter of RFK. For Huerta and millions of Americans, Kennedy was “somebody there who was really going to be the savior, you might say, of our country, especially for working people, and somebody that was strong, and a real leader, and a visionary.”

Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while celebrating his victory in the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Bobby” was the senator from New York and before that the Attorney General in the presidential administration of his older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was a man of means who argued that poverty was an affront to America's founding principles. He was a white man that gained the respect of black Americans across the nation. He walked with Presidents in the halls of power and broke bread with Cesar Chavez for the rights of immigrant farmworkers in California's Central Valley. He was a flawed man in a flawed country who awoke both to the possibilities of moral redemption. Bobby’s words, and life, offer a window into a faded progressive tradition, and the nature of transformation in American life.

The spate of RFK tributes this year include essays, books, and a documentary, which record the loss his admirers continue to feel all these decades later. Activists, campaign workers, and friends who worked on Bobby’s 1968 campaign are still choked and moved to tears – unable to process a shattered promise of American politics half a century ago. “I kept saying to myself, what is happening in America?” said John Lewis, civil rights activist and now long time Congressional Representative from Georgia, as he bowed his head and covered his face, weeping, recalling a memory fifty years ago. “To lose Martin Luther King Jr., and two months later Bobby Kennedy… It was too much.”

Many saw Bobby in his 1968 campaign as a tribune for the poor, a racial healer, and the last progressive crusader. If his older brother was a pope – intellectual, high-minded – Bobby was a parish priest, who carried hope on the back of his campaign from the bottom up. He was tied to the old guard of American liberalism, belonging to the country’s most famous political family, but also symbolized a future President of “Other America” – those mired in poverty and disadvantaged African-, Hispanic-, and Native-Americans, all of whom formed a core of his supporters.

Yet whatever the promises of national salvation in 1968, Bobby was far from a saint. Early in his career he garnered a reputation as a ruthless, bare-knuckled Cold Warrior, working for a time for the redbaiting Joseph McCarthy. He came late, like his brother, to the Civil Rights movement, and, with his brother, laid the seeds for escalation in the Vietnam War. Bobby the later icon of liberal America was a being fired in the wake of moral transformations. He resigned in protest from his work with McCarthy; he became a celebrated advocate for racial justice; he would eventually come out against the Vietnam War. 

No one can know what might have happened if Bobby Kennedy lived, won the Democratic nomination, and beat Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1968. His policies and programs were often hard to place into ideological camps, and Vietnam, Civil Rights, and turbulent social changes still shook the country despite Bobby’s promise of nationwide reconciliation.

But his assassination did mark a distinctive end to the hope and optimism that launched the decade. Many of the young and the idealistic believed that the most visionary and compassionate leaders the nation could produce had all been killed by the end of 1968 – JFK (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), RFK (1968) – and gave up on political engagement altogether.

Bobby need not be idealized. Nostalgia is rarely compelling without critical and independent imagination for the future. But the words he spoke in his final months of 1968 are among the most moving rhetoric in American political history – and rare in that canon for their stoic honesty and compassion. Kennedy was a writer long before he was a politician and by 1968 he honed a rhetorical eloquence bred of his religious faith, his sense of civic duty, his grief at the loss of his brother, and his fondness for works of ancient Greece, writings in which he found strength amid his own despair and which he often quoted and referred to in his own speeches.

What might we learn from them? In one way, perhaps, Bobby’s transformation from Cold Warrior to Progressive Knight challenges an overwrought culture of authenticity. His example reminds us that in the flawed nature of our existence we neither have to deny our past sins nor be held hostage by them; that the capacity for reckoning and growth is a higher virtue than the pretense of purity. “I'm very devoted to the idea of transformation,” Susan Sontag once said. “It's the most American thing about me… and it’s what I love most about America.”

On a deeper level, Bobby's words offer a window into a moral vocabulary and constellation of commitments that have atrophied in today's market-tested values, which know only taxpayers and not citizens, self-interest and not community, profit and not politics. Recovering a protest vernacular within our own history, founded on basic tenets of true economic fairness, an end to military adventurism, and an ethic of communitarian responsibility, can orient at least a starting point for the mass renewal of democratic hope and participation, and indeed already has. If an older generation left progressive politics after 1968, a new generation has begun to pick up the pieces. Bobby is not an end but an entry point into a vast tradition of American progressivism from which to build. Ordinary wisdom might remark: no one talks like that anymore. What if they did? Bobby’s words sound in the hearts of those who knew him with sorrow and nostalgia; rightly so. We the young hear a distant and future harmony.



Recapturing America’s Moral Vision

University of Kansas, March 18, 1968


Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.
But that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts … the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.



The Value of Dissent

Vanderbilt University, March 21, 1968


When we are told to forgo all dissent and division, we must ask: Who is it that is truly dividing the country? It is not those who call for change; it is those who make present policy who divide our country; those who bear the responsibility for our present course; those who have removed themselves from the American tradition, form the enduring and generous impulses that are the soul of the nation…
Those who now call for an end to dissent, moreover, seem not to understanding what this country is all about. For debate and dissent are the very heart of the American process. We have followed the wisdom of Greece: “All things are to be examined and brought into question. There is no limit set to thought.”
For debate is all we have to prevent past error from leading us down the road to disaster. How else is error to be corrected, if not by the informed reason of dissent? Every dictatorship has ultimately strangled in the web of repression it wove for its people, making mistakes that could not be corrected because criticism was prohibited…
A second purpose of debate is to give voice and recognition to those without the power to be heard. There are millions of American living in hidden places, who faces and names we never know. But I have seen children starving in Mississippi, idling their lives away in the ghetto; living without hope or future amid the despair on Indian reservations, with no jobs and little hope. I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity—but the mines are closed, and the jobs are gone, and no one, neither industry or labor or government, has cared enough to help. Those conditions will change, those children will live, only if we dissent. So I dissent, and I know you do too.
A third reason for dissent is not because it is comforting but because it is not – because it sharply reminds us of our basic ideals and true purpose. Only broad and fundamental dissent will allow us to confront not only material poverty but the poverty of satisfaction that afflicts us all…
So if we are uneasy about our country today, perhaps it is because we are truer to our principles than we realize; because we know that our happiness will come not from goods we have but from the good we do together…We say with Camus: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”
So I come here today, to this great university, to ask your help – not for me – for your country and for the future of your world. You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have “the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future.” I urge you to learn the harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our country is in danger. Not just from foreign enemies; but, above all, from our own misguided policies, and what they can do to this country. There is a contest, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. In the next eight months, we are going to decide what this country will stand for, and what kind of men we are. So I ask for your help, in the cities and homes of this state, in the towns and farms, contributing your concern and action, warning of the danger of what we are doing, and the promise of what we can do. I ask you, as tens of thousands of young men and women are doing all over this land to organize yourselves, and then to go forth and work for new policies—work to change our direction—and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our own hearts, and all around the world.



“Other America”

University of Kansas, March 18, 1968


If we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who at least confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown.
But I have seen these other Americans. I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future.  I have seen children in Mississippi - here in the United States - with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars - I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed. 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 on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide. That they end their lives by killing themselves - I don't think that we have to accept that - for the first Americans, for this minority here in the United States.
If young boys and girls are so filled with despair when they are going to high school and feel that their lives are so hopeless and that nobody's going to care for them, nobody's going to be involved with them, and nobody's going to bother with them, that they either hang themselves, shoot themselves or kill themselves - I don't think that's acceptable… and I think we can do much, much better.
And I run for the presidency because of that. I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one - neither industry, nor labor, nor government - has cared enough to help.
I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms - without heat - warding off the cold and warding off the rats.
If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by 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.



Extemporaneous Remarks On the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968


Kennedy climbed onto the bed of a flatbed truck and addressed a crowd gathered for a campaign rally in the heart of the city’s ghetto, organized by (now) Representative John Lewis. Indianapolis, where Kennedy spoke, was nearly the only major city that did not riot that night.


I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort…
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, [and] 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.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.



The Mindless Menace of Violence in America

Cleveland Ohio, April 5, 1968


Delivered the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 


This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives.
It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.
Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by his assassin's bullet.
No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people…
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear - only a common desire to retreat from each other - only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember - even if only for a time - that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.



Final Speech at the California Victory Party

Los Angeles, California, June 4, 1968


. . . I think we can end the division within the United States. What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on with the United States over the period of the last three years – the divisions, whether it’s between black and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or over the war in Vietnam – that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months . . .  
So my thanks to all of you, and it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.



About the Author

Francis Russo is a Ph.D. Student in History at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding editor of Refraction.