Bending Toward Justice


RFK: A Remembrance

June 7, 2019

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of D-Day. My thoughts were with all Americans and others around the world regarding this major historical event, but I found myself also reflecting on the life or Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 6, 1968.

It’s widely acknowledged Joseph P. Kennedy, the Kennedy family patriarch, was the primary behind-the-scenes power in his son John’s ascent to the presidency.

And it was Joe who successfully pushed for another son, Robert, to be part of John’s cabinet as Attorney General in 1961, despite the fact that the young Harvard graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia had never tried a case in court.

Joe, a man with many political connections, some of them dubious, pulled every string he could to get his son elected President. Even conservative Southern Democrats who were concerned about electing a Catholic as President, tolerated, if not somewhat enthusiastically, supported the dashing John F. Kennedy.

The Kennedy boys, it was reported, we’re instructed by their father to tread carefully in the South, which had been solidly Democratic—to avoid wading into the desegregation and civil rights conflicts that were flaring with regularity. For the most part, JFK, in the early stages of his presidency complied, focusing intently on the immense threat of the Soviet Union.

But his younger brother Bobby kept a sharp eye on the civil rights movement and when the Freedom Riders were beaten in May of 1961, the Kennedys spoke out against the action of violent Southern segregationists, thus ending any honeymoon with many Southern Democrats.

Bobby maintained a close eye on the process of desegregation in the South. While his brother’s administration was perceived in some circles to be reluctant to take affirmative action in support of the civil rights movement, there is no doubt that all changed with the Children’s Marches in Birmingham in the spring of 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace’s “stand in the school house door” and the white supremacist murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, both in June 1963.

Civil rights became Bobby’s very public passion, perhaps even more so after his brother was assassinated on November 22, 1963. At a policy level, he was a fervent backer of federal measures to assist in achieving something closer to racial equality.

As a nine-year-old, I was an admirer of sorts of JFK and his brother. As heartbroken as I was with the death of the President, I held out hope like many Americans that his brother would eventually follow in his footsteps. 

Sadly, that dream died fifty-one years ago this week when 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot Bobby Kennedy on the night he became the Democratic frontrunner for the 1968 Democratic Presidential nomination.

It was maddeningly early end for an amazing man whose efforts to make racial equality a concern for every American seemed to grow markedly through his last few years in politics. In 1967, as a New York Senator, Bobby Kennedy shared his experience of visiting the Mississippi Delta with the nation. Media coverage of the event—of Kennedy’s heartbreaking interaction with people suffering in appalling poverty—was startling for middle America.

Kennedy was visibly shaken by what he clearly believed was a human rights issue that needed immediate attention. He helped initiate and develop programs in consultation with the people he met to try and improve conditions.  For him, and for so many others, civil rights became human rights.

Regretfully, so many areas of the country, particularly in the South, remain entrenched in poverty with generations of folks lacking basic health, education, and housing needs.  RFK may not have been able to able to completely remove this stain on America, but had he lived (whether he became President or not) it would most certainly would have faded. Today it’s an issue that should transcend politics. It remains one of America’s most urgent challenges and we all need to come together to end it.

I’m sure Robert F. Kennedy would agree.

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