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Robert F. Kennedy, 1925-1968

Remembering RFK

Forty years ago today -- June 5, 1968 -- presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot inside a Los Angeles hotel, just a couple of minutes after he declared victory in the California primary and had thus bolstered his chances for winning the Democratic nomination. He was rushed to a hospital and pronounced dead on the following day, June 6.

Bobby Kennedy was a U.S. senator (in the New York seat now held by Hillary Clinton) and the U.S. attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. His death seems like a long time ago, but the issues that he spoke about in his short and ill-fated 1968 campaign -- war, poverty, and justice -- still burn as brightly today.

I was just 9 years old, and in the third grade, when Bobby Kennedy was killed. But the memory of that day -- of the disconcerting sadness of the adults around me, the notion that I was a child born into a violent world that was driving off the cliff of sanity and reason, and of hearing the static-ridden bulletin that RFK has been pronounced dead blasting from a passing AM car radio as I walked to elementary school that warm June morning -- will always remain with me.

The world held together -- although some days I wonder. And 40 years later we are rightfully more prone to celebrate the way he lived rather than the way he died -- especially with one remarkable speech. On April 4, 1968, Kennedy was about to address a racially mixed rally in Indianapolis when news arrived of yet another assassination, Martin Luther King. Here is a part of what RFK told his audience that night -- with no teleprompter, no focus groups, and no time to prepare:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
(Interrupted by applause)
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
Forty years later, some of Robert F. Kennedy's dream is coming true, too much of it is still a dream deferred. But all of it is very much alive. I urge you to listen to his entire Indianapolis speech, below: