Op-Ed

Robert F. Kennedy extended his hand across America's divide

In this April 2, 1968, file photo Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, shakes hands with people in a crowd while campaigning for the Democratic party's presidential nomination  in  Philadelphia.  The author has a copy of this photo in his office.
In this April 2, 1968, file photo Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, shakes hands with people in a crowd while campaigning for the Democratic party's presidential nomination in Philadelphia. The author has a copy of this photo in his office. Associated Press

It is hard to believe that it’s been a half-century since Robert Kennedy was murdered. At 1:44 a.m. on June 6, 1968, Kennedy died in Los Angeles. He had just won the California primary. His last public words were, “it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” He was 42.

I’m modestly obsessed with Robert Kennedy. And I should say, in candor, which one. The early Bob Kennedy – the pugilistic figure of the McCarthy and Teamster hearings, the 1960 campaign manager, the sometimes foot-dragging Attorney General – was a creature of traditional politics. He could be idealistic. But he could also be cruel and childish. His speeches were ponderous and halting. He could be effective, often decidedly so. But he was hardly transformational.

The politician of 1967 and 1968, the final Robert Kennedy, was another matter. His presidential campaign was among the most astonishing in American history. He ran as an anti-war, anti-Johnson candidate, to be sure. But Gene McCarthy did that as well.

Kennedy was more. Unspeakable and insurmountable tragedy had opened his eyes to the plight of the powerless and marginalized. For the last years of his life, he often seemed to see little else. He came to embody the words of Aeschylus he regularly intoned – “wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Wisdom unwanted, unpursued.

It is hard to imagine a front-running American presidential candidate announcing his campaign from the Senate caucus room by declaring:

“I have seen the inexcusable and ugly deprivation which causes children to starve in Mississippi; black citizens to riot in Watts; young Indians to commit suicide on their reservations; and proud and able-bodied families to wait out their lives in idleness in eastern Kentucky.”

He embraced black kids with distended stomachs in the Mississippi Delta – despite being dismissed as “socialist-minded” by Governor Paul Johnson. The irate Johnson said “all the Negroes around here are so fat they shine.”

Kennedy struggled beside Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farmworkers in California – facing conditions “even worse than Mississippi.” Huerta explained, “Robert didn’t come to us and tell us what was good for us.” All he asked was “What do you want? And how can I help? That’s why we loved him.”

He campaigned in inner cities, slums and barrios. His impromptu address announcing Martin Luther King’s assassination was delivered to a mostly-black audience in strife-torn Indianapolis. Authorities had demanded he cancel the speech. Kennedy refused.

As David Margolick said, “the most remarkable thing is that he went there.” Kennedy was “the only white man who had the credibility and courage to go into the black community and talk about Dr. King.” In the California primary Kennedy won the night he was shot turnout was higher in Watts than Beverly Hills.

Kennedy’s blunt but passionate discourse bridged the gulf between ethnic whites and people of color. His call was to justice, not charity. “Our whole nation is degraded by wrenching poverty amidst astonishing plenty.” Those born “under the most comfortable conditions” have a “responsibility to others less well off.” A society of infinite possibility cannot accommodate itself to yawning inequality and deprivation. To so so “ignores our common humanity and claims to civilization alike.”

“On this generation of Americans,” Kennedy claimed, “falls the full burden of proving we really mean it when we say all men are equal before the law. We might wish we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. If our times are difficult and perplexing, they’re also challenging and filled with opportunity.”

Peggy Noonan has written of Kennedy: “To have known there was a politician who didn’t like the greedy and stupid but preferred the modest or even the strange, who could summon from us the faith that we could make America more decent if we joined together, changed a generation.”

I have a photograph of Kennedy in my office – straining to keep his balance on the back of a car, shoulders sloping, eyes shining, hair disheveled, cufflinks torn from his wrists. Sometimes still, in my mind’s eye, I reach for his hand.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.

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