Fifty years ago this week, Senator Bobby Kennedy was assassinated shortly after winning the 1968 California primary. Kennedy is remembered today for his time as an attorney general and senator, and of course as the brother of President John F. Kennedy, but it was his spirit that left an indelible impact on the people who worked with him and knew him best.
Television host Chris Matthews has written several books on the Kennedy family and recently published “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.” Matthews suggests that RFK’s assassination drastically shifted the trajectory of our country’s history.
“If he hadn’t been killed, he would’ve gone to the Democratic National Convention in August of 1968 and it would’ve been explosive,” Matthews told CBS Local in a phone interview. “It’s hard to know which way it would’ve gone, but instead we had the police fighting the students. Things would’ve been different if he won: the Vietnam War would’ve been half as long and the civil rights struggle would’ve been advanced many years.”
Matthews interviewed hundreds of people for his book including Kennedy’s wife Ethel, as well as his closest friends and former colleagues. Georgetown Professor of Public Law & Policy Peter Edelman worked with Kennedy for four years before he was killed. RFK’s formal legislative assistant was working for the Justice Department, but decided to work for Kennedy because of the way he unified different kinds of people.
“The work that I did with him as a legislative assistant turned into me working with him on issues of poverty and race,” said Edelman. “I traveled with him around the country and that was the way he learned. He connected with people and learned what their issues and concerns were. I went to California and saw him meet Cesar Chavez. Bobby was very committed to doing something that would make a difference and change some things.”
History tends to remember John F. Kennedy more than Bobby Kennedy, but the younger Kennedy was a fascinating individual. He played varsity football at Yale, ran his brother’s campaigns for the Senate and White House and took down several members of the mob during his time as attorney general. Matthews believes his finest moment came on the night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“He went into Indianapolis and knew he had to tell them that Dr. King had just been killed. He had to introduce himself that night to a community whose leader was just killed. He was exposing himself and didn’t come in like a big shot. He gave himself to the people physically. He believed that if people can’t touch you, they won’t believe you,” said Matthews. “Bobby was always trying to do something that scared him and he was always testing himself.”
Just over two months after this speech, Kennedy would suffer the same fate as King. Colleagues like Edelman remember traveling the country with RFK and visiting places where government officials rarely travel. Edelman recalls entering the house of one African-American family who had pictures of JFK, MLK and RFK hanging up when they walked in.
“He really connected with people, particularly people who were marginalized. These were people who had never seen a Senator come to their house,” said Edelman. “He talked in a very passionate way that we needed to do better as a country. He would say the same thing regardless of who he was talking to and people trusted him.”
Kennedy would have turned 93 years old this year. His killer, Sirhan Sirhan, is serving a life sentence in California.