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The Complex Life and Death of Robert Kennedy
Extraordinary highlights of Kennedy’s often contradictory career
Fifty years ago, the assassination of Senator and presidential primary candidate Robert Francis Kennedy shocked the world. Kennedy was involved in just about every defining political event of the 1960s until his death in 1968. And to complicate matters, it seemed with most issues he’d played on both sides.
There are innumerable avenues to explore in Kennedy’s complex, sometimes contradictory and frequently controversial career – from his changing stance toward racial integration and the civil rights movement, to his evolving relationships with labor leaders and his ultimate commitment to international human rights.
But for us, it seems these aspects of his career make the most sense in relation to each other. In piecing together the different struggles and accomplishments of Kennedy’s life and legacy, an extraordinary story of transformation emerges. From this perspective, we gain a deeper insight into the significance of the 50th anniversary of his death. We begin to understand why so many of us are still fascinated with Kennedy and why so many questions still surround the way he died.
A young conservative evolves into a friend of labor
Kennedy started his career as a young conservative attorney cracking down on suspected communists and squaring off with organized labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. A legendary rivalry developed between RFK and the head of the Teamsters union. There is a great example in the Boston Globe1 of the palpable tension during a 1959 hearing when Kennedy “misspeaks” and accuses Hoffa of being a communist. “The tough little labor leader” responds by “almost jumping with rage,” according to the report.
Yet later, as a passionate progressive senator, Kennedy allied with such labor leaders as Paul Schrade, the United Auto Workers executive who became Kennedy’s labor chairman and confidant during the presidential campaign. Schrade (more on him below) introduced Kennedy to Cesar Chavez, the soft-spoken co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, during a strike by farmworkers against California grape growers.
Seeing the plight of these migrant workers, the harrowing conditions in which they lived and worked, triggered a change in Kennedy and an unlikely – and mutually beneficial – relationship unfolded between him and Chavez. There isn’t a lot of information detailing the history and legacy of their partnership, which was dedicated to making improvements in labor, immigration and civil rights issues that impacted Mexican Americans, so the book One Night in America: Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, and the Dream of Dignity2 is a boon for researchers.
Kennedy’s caution toward the civil rights movement
An early ambivalence toward racial integration left a mark on Kennedy’s career. His attitude was particularly cautious in situations where standing in support of the civil rights movement would come at the cost of white votes. Many felt he failed to act during the 1961 Freedom Rides, for example, where mixed race groups rode interstate buses throughout the south to protest local segregation laws and customs, suffering violent beatings, bombings and arrest along the way.
While RFK, then attorney general, and his brother, then-President John F. Kennedy, expressed concern for the safety of the protestors, they hesitated to call for national intervention out of reluctance to alienate southern conservatives.3 Kennedy’s record was also besmudged by his 1963 authorization of FBI wiretaps on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after continuous pressure from director J. Edgar Hoover and allegations of the civil rights leader’s ties to communism4.
Such incidents caused Black voters and activists to become increasingly frustrated and suspicious of Kennedy. Among them were writer James Baldwin and singer Harry Belafonte who formed a group to meet with Kennedy, according to a 1963 New York Times5 article. They felt Kennedy was not doing enough to support the civil rights movement, and that he did not understand the urgency of racial tensions in the United States.
Though the meeting grew tense and antagonistic, being confronted with the anger and exasperation of these delegates sparked a major turning point in Kennedy’s career and his dedication to racial equity.
The foes and friends of RFK
In his later career, meeting with vulnerable populations informed much of Kennedy’s political outlook. In 1968, he spent time in the poorest inner-city neighborhoods of New York and the most destitute rural areas in the Mississippi Delta region. Again, Kennedy exposed himself to the anger and desperation of marginalized Americans in need – often to his own frustration.
But the experience had a profound impact on him and he became a fierce opponent of poverty. Kennedy rolled out some controversial and unconventional tactics to combat the problem, such as the founding of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn, explored in detail in the dissertation A Humane Struggle: Robert Kennedy and the Problem of Poverty in America.6
On an international scale, Kennedy openly spoke out against apartheid.7 In 1966, the senator was invited by the multiracial National Union of South African Students at Cape Town to appear at an event they were hosting. An estimated 18,000 people attended his 40-minute talk in which he made “an impassioned plea to end societies based on racial difference.” 8 The speech concluded with thunderous applause and a 5-minute standing ovation.
Kennedy was also increasingly vehement about pulling the U.S. out of the Vietnam War. In 1967, he delivered a rousing speech calling for negotiations and an end to the bombing – an issue that caused a rift within the Democratic Party.7 His stance against the war also stoked his long-time rivalry with Lyndon B. Johnson who took over the office of the presidency after the assassination of JFK. The fraught, distrustful relationship between the Kennedys and Johnson is examined in the documentary LBJ vs The Kennedys - Chasing Demons.9
Such fearless outspokenness on humanitarian issues stirred up controversy for Kennedy and also earned him the diehard dedication of his supporters. By the end of his life Kennedy was a rock star presidential primary candidate with a fervent fanbase, which inspired this memo from Bill Crook, Assistant Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity to LBJ advisor Marvin Watson about the crazy response RFK elicited from the crowds:
Teenagers and students flipped over Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles, too -- but no one thought of nominating them for President. Such adulation of the idols was the thing that most revolted the general public. It seems to me that the present idolatry of Bobby could be turned against him. Pictures of youngsters touseling [sic] his hair and grabbing his cuff links are reminiscent of the Sinatra-Presley syndrome and could be used to identify him with the bobby socks mania of the past.
Can you imagine John F. Kennedy permitting people to ruffle his hair and manhandle him? Do people really want a President whom they can pinch, pull, squeeze and hug?
Ongoing controversy surrounding Kennedy’s death
For those who loved him, Kennedy represented the hope of transformation. He possessed an earnestness we don’t usually associate with politics and offered a vision of peace and justice for the future that seemed possible. And because he died at the peak of his career, just months before the Democratic National Convention where he had a fair shot at becoming the Democratic presidential candidate, he didn’t have the chance to let his supporters down.
For many people, Robert Kennedy represented the best of what could have been, and that’s made it hard to let go.
It’s also been hard to let go when there seems to be so many questions that continue to surround his assassination. Among those who were never satisfied with the official investigation is Paul Schrade, Kennedy’s labor chairman who was walking nearby when Kennedy was shot, receiving four bullet wounds himself. He has always maintained that Sirhan Sirhan was not Kennedy’s assassin and has advocated for reinvestigation.11
Another voice has chimed in with doubts about Kennedy’s assassination. In currently breaking news12, Robert Kennedy Jr. revealed he visited convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan in prison and now believes someone else killed RFK. He is joined by his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in support of a new investigation of the murder. Their two other siblings are opposed to the reopening the case.
For researchers seeking further information about the death and legacy of RFK, a variety of primary source documents, including FBI files, correspondence and formerly classified documents about the assassination are available from ProQuest History Vault’s American Politics and Society module.
Help students and researchers gain insight from first-hand accounts in these and additional resources from ProQuest for studies in civil and labor rights as well as diplomatic relations.
2. Bender, S. W. (2007). One Night in America: Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, and the Dream of Dignity. Available from Ebook Central.
3. America in the 20th Century: The Civil Rights Movement. (2010, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Available from American History in Video
4. Newspaper clippings report that Hoover called the wiretap placed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy's idea. From History Vault Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Government Records module; Martin Luther King, Jr. FBI File, Part 1 collection. Folder: 001606-015-0276.
6. Schmitt, E.R. (2003). A Humane Struggle: Robert Kennedy and the Problem of Poverty in America (Order No. 3107901). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
8. Globe, W. B. (1967, Mar 03). RFK: 'We are at a critical turning point in our objectives'. Boston Globe (1960-1986). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
10. From History Vault American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate module; Political activities of the Johnson White House, 1963-1969, Part 1: White House Central and Confidential Files collection. Folder: 002280-003-0197.
11. Holley, P. (2016). Sirhan Sirhan Denied Parole Despite a Kennedy Confidant's Call for the Assassin's Release. Washington: WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.