Many articles in this run-up to the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death are variations of the question “who will be the next RFK?” I believe that misses a central message of Kennedy’s life and legacy. Here’s a brief article explaining why:
(Excerpted from RFK: His Words for Our Times)
Robert Kennedy’s approach, successful in head-to-head 1968 Presidential primary contests with McCarthy in Indiana and Nebraska, had no traction in Oregon. Kennedy’s message never connected with voters in a state the candidate privately described as one giant suburb; as Kennedy told one reporter, “Let’s face it; I appeal best to people who have problems.” McCarthy had pulled out of Nebraska early and committed his best organizers to Oregon and California, and their efforts were matched by phone banks and similar support from friends of the administration within the AFL-CIO official structure, aiming to embarrass the candidate they felt would be Vice President Humphrey’s only viable challenger.
Gun control became a flash-point issue in Oregon. Co-sponsor of legislation regulating firearms, with his brother’s death by a mail-order gun a constant reminder, Kennedy did not duck the topic. The day before the primary, he visited Roseburg, Oregon, in the state’s southwest corner, where timbering drove the economy and recreational hunting was widespread. Warned by the local sheriff that he’d face hostility, Kennedy’s face was “grim” (according to the traveling New York Times reporter) as he approached the microphone on the steps of the Douglas County courthouse in front of a crowd estimated at fifteen hundred—roughly a tenth of the town’s population. Before him were signs reading “protect your right to keep and bear arms”.
“I see signs about the guns,” Senator Kennedy began. “I’m wondering if any of you would like to come and explain.”
According to the New York Times report, [A] heavyset man in a lumber-jacket stepped forward and said:
“I’m Bud Stone. The signs refer to the Senate bill [recently passed] and we think it’s a backdoor bill for the registration of guns and it would let the Supreme Court make the final decision.”
When the candidate got the microphone back, he said he understood that gun legislation was a big issue in this lumber town and that there had been broadcasts on the local radio station opposing the Senate bill.
“If we are going to talk about this legislation, let’s talk about it honestly and not say that it does something that it does not do.”
All [the legislation] requires is that when somebody purchases a gun through a mail order or you send a gun or a rifle across a state line that you abide by the law of a particular state . . . At the present moment, a person who is insane, a man with a long criminal record of having killed a dozen people, can go in and buy a rifle. Now if you think that that makes sense for all of us . . . A person who is four years old can buy a rifle now . . . A man on death row in Kansas, who had killed a half a dozen people, and someone there sent for a rifle, through the mail from Chicago, for him to have a rifle while he was waiting on death row, after killing people . . . and the rifle was sent to him.
Now, does that make any sense, that you should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns? I’d just ask you.
I just present the case—it’s presented to you, and I know that it’s presented on the radio here, and—[gesturing] I’m not making any reflections on this gentleman—is presented by the John Birch Society as somebody who is going to come in, the federal government is going to come in and take your guns away and take your rifles away. Nothing is going to happen about that. Anybody can have—just as you can have an automobile. I hear that . . . here in this community, it’s described as the way Nazi Germany started. Well you can say that registering an automobile is the way Nazi Germany started.
All we are talking about is having guns not in the hands—anybody can have a gun, anybody can have a rifle—but a person who’s got a criminal record or is in an insane institution or is mentally incompetent shouldn’t have a rifle or a gun. Is there anybody out here that thinks those people should have rifles or guns?[Smattering of applause and Nos]
That’s all the legislation does. It doesn’t stop anybody from having a rifle or a gun, so [your sign] protect your right to keep and bear arms is just misleading the American people and is misleading everybody else.
Nobody is going to come in and take your guns away.
. . . With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep rearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles.[A man in a cowboy hat booed loudly and shouted, “They’ll get them (guns) anyway,” the New York Times reported.]
The next day, Eugene McCarthy won the primary by six points, the first time a member of the Kennedy family had suffered a defeat in twenty-seven electoral contests.
The day after the primary, at a press conference in California, Kennedy read a prepared statement that said “these results represent a setback to my prospects for receiving the presidential nomination of my party, a setback, as I have previously stated, which I could ill afford.” Characteristically, in response to a question, he took complete responsibility: “I lost because I didn’t do well enough. The only fault is me.” Kennedy made a point of sending an early and gracious congratulatory telegram to McCarthy, who had not extended a similar courtesy after Kennedy’s victories in Indiana and Nebraska.
This wasn’t to be the last time Roseburg and gun violence made national news. On October 1, 2015, a twenty-six-year-old student at Umpqua Community College fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students, and wounded eight others. The killer was wounded in a shoot-out with police and then killed himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon’s modern history.
Adapted from RFK: His Words for Our Times
Happy Earth Day! Observers have argued that Robert Kennedy was on his way to becoming our first environmental President by 1968. He had been advocating for landmark clean air and clean water legislation, sought to focus public attention to the issues, and put the debate in moral terms.
On January 4, 1967, before the issue captured the widespread attention of either the public or politicians, Kennedy addressed one of the first major conferences to examine the consequences of fouling the environment: the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan Area Air Pollution Control Conference. There, he said:
“On a trip to Latin America last year, I saw people in Recife, in the poorest part of Brazil, who ate crabs which lived on the garbage that the people themselves threw in the shallow water near their shabby homes. And whenever I tell this story to Americans, the reaction is: How sad, how terrible, that such poverty, such underdevelopment, should exist in the world.
But we New Yorkers are in a poor position from which to extend pity. For every year, the average New Yorker—old and young, rich and poor, athlete or infirm recluse—breathes in 750 pounds of his own wastes . . . And because there are so many of us, crowding into this tiny fraction of the United States, a great pall of filthy air blankets the entire metropolitan area, and we all must breathe the same air into which we carelessly spill our refuse . . .
But we should not—we cannot—wait for technology to make clean air entirely painless, to be achieved without effort, like a genie waving a magic wand. We will never get anywhere unless we begin now to apply what we do know . . .“
Stewardship of the earth was related to Kennedy’s lifelong view of generational responsibility – on April 25, 1963, he had noted that “every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after. In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.”
By the 1968 Presidential campaign Robert Kennedy was weaving these ideas into a broader moral call to overcome “the poverty of satisfaction“, beautifully enunciated on his first full day of campaigning, before an audience at the University of Kansas (March 28, 1968). It became a signature expression of his vision for a new America:
“[E]ven if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—a lack of purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.
Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP—if we should judge 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 those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and 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.”
(Photograph of Robert and Kerry Kennedy courtesy of George Henry (c)
ADAPTED FROM RFK: HIS WORDS FOR OUR TIMES
On April 10, 1967, Robert Kennedy attended Labor Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty hearings in Mississippi, following up on Capitol Hill hearings held that March. In Washington, Kennedy was galvanized by testimony from Marian Wright, a twenty-seven-year-old southern native and Yale Law School graduate, who staffed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Mississippi office. She was one of only five black lawyers (and one of two black law school graduates) in the state, and the only one with a full-time specialty in civil rights. Edelman set the context for the Mississippi hearings: “After two civil rights bills and the third year of the poverty bill, the . . . Negro in Mississippi is poorer than he was, he has less housing, he is badly educated; he is almost in despair.”
On April 11, Kennedy told Charles Evers (brother of the slain Medgar and a key contributor to Kennedy’s black support in the 1964 Senate campaign), “I want to see it.” Led by local civil rights leader Amzie Moore, the small group began in Cleveland, Mississippi, and ventured deep into the Delta, into (in Evers’s words) “one of the worst places [I have] ever seen.” They went from shack to shack, listening to men long out of work, without skills or prospects, and parents trying to keep their babies alive on rice, biscuits, and gravy left over from old surplus handouts. Kennedy told traveling companion and key Senate aide Peter Edelman that although he had witnessed serious deprivation in West Virginia, he was viewing the most horrendous conditions he had seen in the United States, equal to the worst squalor he had seen in the Third World.
Evers remembered one shack with
no ceiling hardly The floor had holes in it, and a bed black as my arm, propped up with some kind of bricks to keep it from falling The odor was so bad you could hardly keep the nausea down
This lady came out with hardly any clothes on, and we told her who [Kennedy] was She just put her arms out and said “Thank God” and then she just held his hand.
Des Moines Register writer Nick Kotz, accompanying the group, watched Kennedy, who had seen “a child sitting on the floor of a tiny back room. Barely two years old, wearing only a filthy undershirt, she sat rubbing several grains of rice round and round on the floor. The senator knelt beside her.
“Hello… Hi… Hi, baby… ” he murmured, touching her cheeks and her hair as he would his own child’s As he sat on the dirty floor, he placed his hand gently on the child’s swollen stomach
But the little girl sat as if in a trance…. For five minutes he tried: talking, caressing, tickling, poking—demanding that the child respond. The baby never looked up.
Evers remembered that “tears were running down [Kennedy’s] cheeks, and he just sat there and held the little child. Roaches and rats were all over the floor . . . ‘How can a country like this allow it?’ [Kennedy asked him]. ‘Maybe they just don’t know.’”
As Marian Wright Edelman has written in her essay in the opening of our book, “From this trip and throughout the fifteen months I knew him, until his assassination, I came to associate Robert Kennedy with nonverbal, empathetic communications that conveyed far more than words. He looked straight at you and he saw you—and he saw suffering children. And his capacity for genuine outrage and compassion was palpable. He kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children and his pushing, passion, and visibility helped set in motion a chain of events that led to major reforms.”
For much of the 51 years since Senator Kennedy experienced Delta poverty directly, America extended a safety net for the nation’s poor, but in recent years, the number of poor – especially poor children – has steadily grown. Indeed, the US has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world: 25%. Overall, roughly 43 million of our fellow citizens are living below the poverty line. (Coverage of a recent UN report is here.)
And two recent trends suggest that the situation will worsen. First, the Trump administration is encouraging states to add work and other requirements to their welfare programs, despite substantial evidence that such steps lead hunger and extreme poverty to rise. Second, the enormous federal deficit increases projected to result from the 2017 tax cut are cited by Republicans in arguing to gut safety net programs.
The national rise in child poverty, and stories of effective efforts in a number of states to protect kids, are detailed in this article from Billy Shore, co-founder of Share Our Strength.
A year after his trip to Mississippi, on the Presidential campaign trail, Robert Kennedy repeatedly reminded his listeners in every part of the country of the plight of these forgotten Americans:
I have seen children in Mississippi—here in the United States, with a gross national product of eight hundred 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 that we can get enough food so that they can live, 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.
Our Gross National Product now is nearly $20 billion, but for years we have lost Kennedy’s outrage about so many people living in our midst who cannot feed or house themselves or their children. We can’t Make America Great if we abandon one-quarter of our children to poverty.
(Photo by James Lucas, JFK Library)
50 YEARS AGO TODAY: Having helped to quiet Indianapolis after the death of Dr. King on April 4, and made an extended plea for an end to violence April 5 in Cleveland, Robert Kennedy returned to one of the cities worst hit by riots: Washington DC. With city officials and members of the community, he walked a 22-block area that had been ground zero. Here’s how we described the scene in our book:
“Soldiers in full battle gear, deployed on tanks and armored personnel carriers, attempted to keep the cur- few. On Sunday, April 7, he walked the riot-torn neighborhoods with D.C. City Councilman the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who remembered that ‘the stench of burning wood and broken glass were all over the place. We walked the streets. The troops were on duty. A crowd gathered behind us, following Bobby Kennedy. The troops saw us coming at a distance, and they put on their gas masks and got the guns at ready, waiting for this horde of blacks coming up the street. When they saw it was Bobby Kennedy, they took off their masks and let us through. They looked awfully relieved.’”
Caption on the featured image, from the Washington Post: “An April 7, 1968, photo showing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., stepping through the debris of a building razed by fire during a 22-block tour on foot, April 7, 1968, through the badly damaged area along 14th Street is placed on a easel at the present day corner of 7th and U Streets in northwest Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).”
To the stunned members of Indianapolis’ black community on the night of April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy dispensed grace straight from his heart, drawing on his personal credibility as a fellow victim of violence. He intended to cancel all campaign events until after Dr. King’s funeral, but John Lewis (who had advanced the April 4 trip) urged him to speak at greater length against violence, particularly in light of the paroxysm of rioting that swept across the country, sparing Indianapolis. So Kennedy kept one public event on April 5 – remarks to the largely white Cleveland City Club. Unlike the previous evening, this speech was carefully (if quickly) crafted by Kennedy’s speechwriting team (particularly Jeff Greenfield and Adam Walinsky) on the road, in dialogue with the candidate himself.
His objectives were clear: condemning violence as wrong and shortsighted, regardless of the cause; acceptance of a “rising tide” of violence in nearly every community; and pivoting from the scenes in the streets to the equally deadly “violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow delay.” What followed (audio available under the “Audio & Video” tab) was timeless for its eloquence and for the challenge it issued, which remains unanswered:
“This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the 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…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 not 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 humane 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 others. 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 vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution. But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in 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 own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Photo: Ray Matjasic, The Plain Dealer, File, 1968
From RFK: His Words for Our Times:
On the Death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Indianapolis, Indiana April 4, 1968
Kennedy launched his Indiana primary campaign on April 4, with a series of campus rallies. At Notre Dame, he had decried poverty, hunger, and joblessness. At Ball State University, he spoke of his belief in a generous America, and in the question-and-answer period that followed, a young black man asked, “You are placing great faith in white America. Is this faith justified?” Kennedy answered affirmatively and added, “I think the vast majority of white people want to do the decent thing.” Immediately before boarding the plane in Muncie to fly to Indianapolis, Kennedy received a call from Pierre Salinger (his brother’s press aide and a 1968 campaign adviser), who told him that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis.
Kennedy and his press secretary Frank Mankiewicz huddled on the short flight; they feared from the initial reports that King would not survive. Kennedy, still deeply scarred from his brother’s assassination, struggled to comprehend this latest shooting and to determine what he should say about it publicly.
On landing in Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that King was dead. His advance men, Walter Sheridan and (now Congressman) John Lewis, had scheduled a rally in the heart of the city’s ghetto, an event that Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar thought was too dangerous, even in the quieter times when the schedule was made.
The evening was chilly and raw. Lewis and Kennedy’s traveling aides learned that the ghetto was quiet—word of the assassination had not reached the neighborhood—but Indianapolis Chief of Police Winston Churchill advised Kennedy not to go because he expected there would be violence as soon as the news became known. Kennedy grimly decided to proceed as planned, and, having sent his pregnant wife ahead to the hotel, he rode to the site in silent contemplation.
When his car entered the black neighborhood, the police escort dropped off. The press bus became separated from the candidate, and on the bus Frank Mankiewicz frantically tried to draft a coherent statement from the images and concerns Kennedy had expressed on the plane.
About one thousand people were waiting, in a carefree mood typical of a rally. Walinsky, also having been separated from Kennedy when the motorcade was disbanded, rushed up with suggested talking points. Kennedy thanked him distantly, crumpled the notes, and jammed them into his overcoat without glancing at them.
Having specifically requested that he not be formally introduced, Kennedy climbed onto a flatbed truck that was serving as a platform. “He was up there,” said television correspondent Charles Quinn, “hunched in his black overcoat, his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish.” The only illumination came from floodlights, bathing the truck platform. As Mankiewicz raced up, with his own legal-pad speech draft, he realized he’d never reach the candidate in time.
Speaking extemporaneously, Kennedy said, in a sad, tremulous voice:
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.
A huge gasp came from the people and then screams of “No! No!” Kennedy somberly went on.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
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.
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.
Kennedy was a unique white public official in America able to address a crowd in a black neighborhood that tragic night and not encounter violence. He spoke as a recognized champion of the disadvantaged, and he carried the credibility of his family’s tragedy; in fact, this night marked the first time he had referred publicly to his brother’s shooting.
Whether Kennedy’s appearance was a factor—and it seemed surely to have been—Indianapolis remained quiet while rioting broke out in 110 cities across the land, causing thirty-nine deaths, twenty-six hundred injuries, and tens of millions of dollars of property damage.
Returning to his hotel, Kennedy phoned Coretta King, and then (at her request) asked Mankiewicz to make arrangements for the body of the slain civil rights leader to be flown from Memphis to King’s home in Atlanta. Carrier after carrier refused, anxious about the resulting notoriety, as the night of black rage continued to sweep across the nation. Finally, in the early morning hours, a private plane was borrowed from a Kennedy friend in Atlanta.
(Photo by Leroy Patton, AP (c) )
The article linked below is a wonderful, powerful reflection on Dr. King, so perfect for this season and next week's 50th anniversary of a national tragedy. Easter is centered on the proposition that amidst deepest heartbreak can come hope. Here's how that plays out in this article as we face these anniversaries: "To idealists of the 21st century, it may seem that on many social, economic and ethical fronts the country has come to what seems a futureless halt, just as the museum’s civil rights story does. But rather than exit the scene in weariness or frustration, we would do well to go back in time. If we stay alert, we can find instruction there." https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/arts/design/martin-luther-king-jr-national-civil-rights-museum.html
March 29: RFK: His Words for Our Times begins with selections from the newspaper articles for the Boston Post written by Robert Kennedy as a 22-year old correspondent for the Boston Post in Palestine, as the British mandate was ending and fighting between Arabs and Jews escalated. This picture was taken nearly exactly 70 years ago – in late March of 1948, just before the state of Israel was declared. RFK is on King David Street; behind him is a British military checkpoint at the intersection of what is now Agron Street. Kennedy’s pieces were remarkably perceptive and have uncanny echoes today. You’ll be able to read them, oh so easily, when the book comes out May 1. All the ways to pre-order are here: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062834102/rfk
March 30 was #CesarChavezDay. Chavez and Kennedy took chances on one another. RFK embraced the Farm Workers when they were still largely considered to be radicals & where political advisers told Kennedy that support of the UFW would cost him votes in the crucial CA primary. Chavez reached out to Kennedy when distrust of white elected officials was intense, and it was clear that an alliance with RFK would enrage the Johnson administration. Yet, as this article reviews, theirs was a friendship based on a common sense of activist Catholicism. Sacrifice, justice, loss and redemption – all fitting themes on this Good Friday and the beginning of Passover. Best wishes to all at a holy time perfect for reflection and then action. https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/12/50-years-ago-catholic-example-cesar-chavez-and-bobby-kennedy