50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Robert Kennedy – 06/06/1968
It has been 50 years since the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
The 42-year-old presidential candidate was mortally wounded shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California presidential primaries for the 1968 presidential election.
Kennedy had just left the podium and was exiting through the hotel kitchen where he was mortally wounded by a lone gunman 24-year-old Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy died in the Good Samaritan Hospital twenty-six hours later. Sirhan was ultimately convicted of murdering Kennedy and sentenced to death in 1969; his sentence was however commuted to life in prison in 1972.
Robert Kennedy’s remains were taken to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan for two days of public viewing before a funeral Mass was held on June 8. His body was interred at night at Arlington National Cemetery near to his brother John.
At the age of twenty-two in 1948, Robert visited the British Mandate of Palestine, a disputed region that later became Israel. Kennedy wrote passionate dispatches for The Boston Post about his trip and the effect it had on him. He wrote of his admiration for the that Jewish inhabitants of the region and later, as a Senator, he later became a strong supporter and advocate for Israel. Robert Kennedy’s support for Israel is cited as Sirhan Sirhan’s primary motive.
Robert Kennedy was appointed United States Attorney General under the presidency of older brother John in January 1961. In September 1964 he resigned to run for election to the United States Senate. Successful, on January 3, 1965 Robert Francis Kennedy took office as the US Senator for New York.
The run-up to the 1968 presidential election was a period of great social unrest in the United States and extremely challenging for President Johnson. There were riots in many US cities despite Johnson’s attempts to introduce anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation, and there was significant opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, led to further riots across the US. It is during this difficult time that Robert Kennedy enters the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and it is during this time, responding to the assassination of Dr King, that Kennedy has an epiphany. Jeff Shesol, author of Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy explains.
The 1968 California presidential primary elections were held on Tuesday, June 4. The result gave Kennedy 46% and McCarthy 42% and four hours after the polls closed in California, Robert Kennedy claimed victory in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. On June 5, he addressed his campaign supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
It is interesting to note that at the time, the government only provided Secret Service protection for an incumbent president but not for presidential candidates. Kennedy’s only security was provided by a former FBI agent and two unofficial bodyguards.
Following the address, Kennedy had planned to walk through the ballroom when he had finished speaking to speak to another gathering of supporters elsewhere in the hotel. With press deadlines fast approaching, reporters wanted a press conference. Campaign aide Fred Dutton decided that Kennedy would forgo the second gathering of supporters and instead go through the hotel’s kitchens behind the ballroom to the press area.
Just as Robert Kennedy turned to shake hands with busboy Juan Romero, Sirhan Sirhan stepped in and repeatedly fired what was later identified as a .22 calibre revolver at Kennedy.
Sirhan was disarmed and subdued only after five other people were also wounded in the attack. As Kennedy lay wounded, Juan Romero cradled the senator’s head and placed a rosary in his hand. Kennedy asked Romero, “Is everybody OK?” and Romero responded, “Yes, everybody’s OK.” Kennedy then turned away from Romero and said, “Everything’s going to be OK.”
Kennedy had been shot three times. One bullet, fired at a range of about 2.5 cm entered behind his right ear, dispersing fragments throughout his brain. The other two entered at the rear of his right armpit; one exited from his chest and the other lodged in the back of his neck. Despite extensive surgery, Robert Francis Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, nearly 26 hours after the shooting.
Fifty years is more than enough ample time for romanticised narratives to develop. Some of RFK’s rougher edges have been bevelled and the volatility of the 1968 campaign has been glossed over which has created an alternative history of sorts in which Robert Kennedy’s electoral victory was inevitable and his promises certain to be kept. That is, if only he had left the ballroom by a different door.
Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America said when promoting his book in 2008, that many readers told him that they were still haunted by Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
“I heard again and again that they felt the loss of Bobby Kennedy more keenly even than the loss of John F. Kennedy,” Mr. Clarke said. “That they felt the country would have been even more different had Robert Kennedy been president than if John F. Kennedy had lived.”
By: R. J. Hawksworth
Image: Robert Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, 19 August 1964, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.