RFK: 50 Years Later
by francis russo | 8.2.18
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.
obert F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while celebrating his victory in the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination, in early June, 1968. “Bobby” was the senator from New York and before that the Attorney General in the presidential administration of his older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The spate of RFK tributes this year include essays, books, and a documentary, which record the loss his supporters 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. Something must be said for such interminable grief. “I kept saying to myself, what is happening in America?” recalled John Lewis, civil rights activist and now the long time Congressional Representative from Georgia, as he bowed his head, covered his face, and wept. “To lose Martin Luther King Jr., and two months later Bobby Kennedy… It was too much.”
In the eyes of many, the Bobby of the 1968 campaign was, to use the epithets of an admiring biographer, a “tribune for the poor, a racial healer, and the last progressive knight.” This was not far from the mark in 1968, but it had not always been the case. Early in his career Kennedy had garnered a reputation as a bare-knuckled Cold Warrior and ruthless campaigner, and worked for a time for the redbaiting Joseph McCarthy. Like his brother, he hesitated on the emerging Civil Rights movement and, with his brother, laid the seeds for escalation in the Vietnam War.
Yet 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. Inevitably part man and part myth, Bobby the icon of American liberalism was a progressive crusader forged in a crucible of paradoxes: he walked with Presidents in the halls of power but also with labor activists for the rights of impoverished immigrant farmworkers; he was a man of means who advocated for the poor; a white man who gained the respect of African Americans; a deity for dejected citizens, who wrestled with the country’s inherited flaws but also insisted on a new space for aspiration.
No one can say what might have happened had RFK lived. But his death marked a distinctive end to the hope and optimism that launched the decade. Many 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.
hat can Bobby Kennedy mean today? In one way, his transformations and paradoxes stand as a challenge to our overwrought culture of authenticity. His example reminds us that we neither have to deny our past nor be held hostage by it; 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 Kennedy is not an end but an entry point into to a progressive tradition eclipsed in the memory of most Americans. His language offers a window into a moral vocabulary and constellation of commitments that have atrophied since the nineteen-sixties, and exploring it is compelling not to satisfy nostalgia but to take up the mantle of its future expansion. Kennedy existed in a political universe whose center of gravity was still the New Deal and the Progressive movement born at the turn of the twentieth-century. Today we exist somewhere at the opposite pole of that world, where market-tested values know only taxpayers and not citizens, self-enrichment and not community, profit and not politics. If there is hope for a renewed progressive movement, it lies in part in recovering a protest vernacular within our own history, one founded on the substantive tenets of economic fairness, an end to military adventurism, and an ethic of communitarian responsibility. Speaking in these terms now would not only be to counter the hollow status quo and the theater of the absurd that currently dominates national life. It would also be to summon a massive shift in the political imagination of American citizens, one in which the basic promises and participatory spirit of the New Deal re-enter the stage of political possibility.
If an older generation left progressive politics after 1968, recent months have revealed a new generation ready to pick up the pieces. Reading RFK’s speeches in college – “that was my jam,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the New Yorker, naming him as a hero. Her upset win has inspired progressives across the country and her sincerity is a refreshing antidote to millennial ironists and spectating cynics. Hearing an RFK speech today, 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; 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 – 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.
San Jose, California, March 23, 1968
Listen to the full speech here.
If there is one overriding reality in this country, it is the danger that we have a erosion of a sense of national decency. Make no mistake, decency is at the heart of the matter. Poverty in this country is indecent. Illiteracy is indecent. The death or maiming of brave young men in the swamps of Asia [fighting the Vietnam War] – that is also indecent.
And it is also indecent for a man to work with his back and with his hands in the valleys of California without hope of ever seeing his son enter a university. That is also indecent. It is indecent for a man in the streets of New York, in Oakland, in Detroit, in Watts, to surrender the only life that he will ever have to despair. It is indecent for the best of our young people to be driven to alienation and flight to the terrible exile of drugs and violence, to allow their hearts to wither in rage and with hatred.
This in my judgment, the year 1968, is a time to create, not to destroy. This is a time to work – for men to work out with a sense of decency, and not with bitterness. This is a time to begin again, and that is why I run for President of the United States ...
And I think there are things to be changed in this country. We have a brave country, a courageous country, and a people who bleed with compassion about the problems of others within our own country and elsewhere around the globe, but we are troubled and this is a disturbing time. As we stand here today, brave young men are fighting across an ocean. Here, while the moon shines, men are dying on the other side of the earth. Which of them might have written a poem? Which of them might have cured cancer? Which of them might have played in a World Series, or given us the gift of laughter from a stage, or helped build a bridge or build a university? Which of them would have taught a child how to read? And I believe it is our responsibility to make sure that these men live, and that is why I run for President of the United States ...
My friends, there are other tasks before us. It is a time to begin to rebuild the grand alliance, to repair the bonds of trust and confidence with those historic allies whose friendship has been the basis of our security for so many years. It is time to recall to ourselves our true responsibilities around the rest of the globe, to recognize that we cannot sit frozen and indifferent while every day ten thousand of our fellow human beings starve elsewhere in the world, that it is a monstrous disproportion that we should buy eight million new cars every year, while most of the world goes without shoes. I think there are things we can do, and I want to join with you in doing them ...
There is difficulty and division in our land today, but in the last six days, I have been to Kansas and to Alabama, to Tennessee, and to my own state of New York, and now I have come to California, and I think there is a stirring of something new in the United States. It is not the creation of any candidate or leader, it is nothing that I have made, but it is a sense that there is a possibility of a different future, that the American people are discovering that they control their own destiny, and that they are going to move ahead, that they are going to make this land as they see fit, and not as it is created by others a thousand miles away.
Some of them are young in years, as I see before me here tonight, but all of them are young in spirit. They are beginning to feel that change is possible, that hope is possible, that by the work of their own hands, and the love of their own hearts, they can restore that fundamental sense of decency for themselves, for each other, and for our posterity, for our children and for the next generation of Americans ...
There are still many who feel that their efforts cannot make a difference, but the alienated and the apathetic alike I believe will dwindle in numbers and decline in strength, and, finally, they too will see, as more and more are seeing every day, that we can make a difference. We can put this country together again and we can turn its course around, and that's why I'm running for President of the United States. So I come here to ask for your help. I ask for the help of those who are proud of this country, proud of what we've done, proud of what we've contributed, proud of what we stand for, and I ask for the help of those who are dissatisfied, who are proud of all these things, but yet feel that we could do better, that we're not going to stand for poverty, that we're not going to permit illiteracy, that we're going to find jobs for every young man and every young woman who wants to work, and that we're committing ourselves to that ...
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 understand 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, whose 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… 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 the 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 ... 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.
Extemporaneous Remarks On the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Indianapolis, April 4, 1968
The night MLK was killed 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 the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Listen to the full speech:
This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity – my only event of today – to speak briefly to you about the 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, June 5, 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 PhD Student in History at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding editor of Refraction.