In a chapter entitled “Dark Days: 1968,” my father describes the tumultuous events of 1968. The year which would be one of the deadliest of the Vietnam war began with the bloody Tet Offensive in January. On the home front, protests surged as the loss of American soldiers escalated. Then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Riots ensued, and cities burned in the turmoil. And, in another horrifying assassination, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered on June 5, 1968, fifty years ago today.
Robert Francis Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on November 20, 1925, was the third son of the affluent Kennedy family. He served in the Navy during WWII, graduated from Harvard, then the University of Virginia Law School. As a Senate counsel, he fought against organized crime which included Jimmy Hoffa’s corrupt Teamsters union. He managed his older brother John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and became his attorney general and closet advisor. After JFK’s assassination, Robert Kennedy remained attorney general for several months at President Johnson’s request, but in late 1964, he resigned and was elected as New York’s US Senator.
In March 1968, he entered the presidential primary with a platform championing the underprivileged, supporting civil rights, and opposing the Vietnam War. He was campaigning in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, when news of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination reached him. Though he was advised to cancel a rally scheduled in a predominately black neighborhood due to violent protests spreading across the nation, he insisted on proceeding with it. His speech that night encouraged peace and is credited with sparing Indianapolis the violence experienced elsewhere in many major cities.
But on June 5, 1968, shortly after winning the California Democratic Primary and addressing a lively crowd, forty-two-year-old Senator Kennedy was shot at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. He died on the following day. His assassin, 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, of Palestinian descent, later testified that his hatred for Kennedy was due to the senator’s support of Israel. In the aftermath of Senator Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson promptly signed the Protective Candidate Law expanding Secret Service protection to include “major presidential and vice presidential candidates.”
Robert Kennedy’s casket was flown to New York where a funeral Mass was held on June 8, 1968, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My father, on presidential protective detail, accompanied President Johnson to this funeral—yet another funeral. For the third time in less than five years, the country buried a great leader as the result of a senseless assassination.