Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. Much of that remembrance condenses Kennedy’s contributions to a speech given in Indianapolis, a brief presidential campaign that gave many hope, and martyrdom that allowed many to ponder “what might have been.”
It is undeniable Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis was a seminal moment in American history. He was charged on the evening of April 4, 1968, with informing the crowd assembled that the Rev. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. In doing so, he made himself vulnerable, reminding the crowd that he too lost a family member to gun violence.
Kennedy’s compassionate plea, which contributed to quelling the violence in Indianapolis that besieged other urban cities the night King was assassinated, was a far cry from his father Joe Kennedy’s observation to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, “Bobby’s my boy. When Bobby hates you, you stay hated.”
The senior Kennedy was referring to the Bobby Kennedy who worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who paradoxically was the least qualified (on paper) to become U.S. attorney general but who, for roughly 1,000 days, was without question the most powerful individual to hold the office.
Joe Kennedy’s version was the “runt of the litter” who was searching for his place in the male Kennedy pecking order. Bobby had to wade through the rough seas of his father’s desires to be president that were transferred to his brother Joe and then to Jack. He located his niche by becoming the ruthless “bad cop” and ultimately his brother’s keeper as attorney general.
The phrase “power behind the throne” found its 20th century prototype in Bobby Kennedy. With his father’s insistence President Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general. It was an unprecedented and brazen move, unlikely to be replicated again.
As if head of the Justice Department were not enough, Bobby Kennedy took the lead on covert operations, including Operation Mongoose, whose goals included the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He was a key figure in the backdoor negotiations that led to a successful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was also the administration’s de-facto chief of staff.
In 1963, shortly after the March on Washington, Attorney General Kennedy signed off on F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request for 24-hour surveillance of Martin Luther King, which continued until King’s assassination.
Kennedy’s motivation to acquiesce to Hoover’s request may have been to protect his brother the president. Hoover had already made the Kennedy brothers aware that he was in possession of recordings proving the president was having an affair with Judith Campbell. Campbell was also romantically involved with Chicago mob boss, Sam Giancana.
Ironically, two tragic events removed the burden Kennedy had borne since childhood in his attempt to find his role in the Kennedy clan. In December 1961, his father Joe suffered a debilitating stroke; and then of course, there was the assassination of his brother on Nov. 22, 1963.
Quickly and tragically, Kennedy went from the “runt of the litter” to its patriarch. Politically, he went from the most powerful attorney general in American history to becoming severely neutered by President Lyndon Johnson. But this placed Kennedy on a path to find his own voice.
He became a New York senator rather than seeking an elected office in his home state of Massachusetts. In 1967, as New York’s junior senator, Kennedy visited the Mississippi Delta to view poverty up close and personal.
He became an opponent of the Vietnam conflict, a quagmire that his brother deepened and Bobby once supported as attorney general. And as a presidential candidate in 1968, he forged a coalition comprised of people of color and many working-class whites infused with hope and possibility.
Kennedy, who was undergoing his own metamorphous, also carried the burden of continuing the myth of Camelot. But on June 5, 1968 it came to violent end.
Bobby Kennedy’s legacy is an amalgamation of good and bad, triumph and tragedy, hope and let down. In this context he’s no different from many famous people. He could have remained the ruthless runt of the family, his brother’s keeper, but when given the opportunity, he realized his unique purpose.
As the late Sen. Ted Kennedy eloquently stated at his brother’s eulogy:
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man.”
We’re all born innocent, dealt a unique set of cards that we alone must play. However one defines the legacy of Bobby Kennedy, it must include how he dealt with the bad cards in pursuit of becoming a good and decent man.
Rev. Byron Williams is one of the leading public theologians in the nation. He is a columnist, author, and adjunct professor at Wake Forest University. He is also host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, and the forthcoming The Radical Declaration: An Enlightened Ideal Learn more >