Robert F. Kennedy: A Californian Reflects on His 1968 Campaign and Message of Hope and Reconciliation
Assassination 40 Years Ago
By Marty D. Omoto
California Disability Community Action Network
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation… It is from numerous diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” - Robert F. Kennedy
In the midst of a history making presidential campaign in 2008, many Americans will pause and reflect today and tomorrow, marking the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, after his triumph in the California presidential primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Kennedy was shot just minutes after midnight on June 5, and died just after 1 AM on June 6th - barely two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis and four and half years after the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Kennedy was only 42 years old when he died in the early hours of June 6th. [pictured left campaigning in Sacramento to a frenzied crowd, March 1968 just a few days after he announced his candidacy],
The loss of two remarkable national leaders to violence in a time span of two months seems unbelievable now, 40 years later. And both the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and King occurred just a few years after President John F. Kennedy was killed, murders of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and others, and combined with escalating fighting and deaths in Vietnam, riots in April and in the summer in many American cities and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, traumatized the nation in ways that perhaps it has never recovered from.
Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign brought together an unlikely coalition of young people, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, blue collar white workers and families in a string of primary victories, in Indiana and Nebraska, and Washington, DC and one stunning defeat in Oregon by Sen. Eugene McCarthy and then a comeback victory a week later in the California and South Dakota presidential primaries.
Current Assemblymember Mervyn Dymally - who was a a member of the State Assembly back then in 1968 (before serving as Lt. Governor, then later as a member of Congress, then back to the Assembly), was an early supporter of Kennedy, as was fellow Assemblymember Willie Brown. There is a photo of RFK speaking to a crowd of largely African Americans in Watts, with Dymally standing just below Kennedy.
Kennedy, if he had lived, faced a difficult challenge after the California primary, to overcome the delegate lead of then Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, who entered the race too late to run in any of the primaries. Some historians say he would not have won. But many other historians believe that RFK would have prevailed and would have won the nomination and defeated Richard Nixon the following November.
His assassination guaranteed that we would never know.
MARTY OMOTO REMEMBRANCE OF JUNE 1968:
I was young kid working as a volunteer in the Kennedy campaign in my hometown of Monterey walking precincts, and doing errands at the local headquarters and passing out campaign flyers at school and around the neighborhoods.
But working in the RFK campaign even at that level - like those who worked in the campaign for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, seemed like something special - as if one was a part of a crusade for hope, for peace and an end to the war in Vietnam. . It seemed that Robert Kennedy was the only man in the America who could bring blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, the poor - everyone - together
There was a sense of real hope about Bobby Kennedy's candidacy, and what it meant to us, especially in minority communities, many who felt powerless, shut out and isolated. .
It was a feeling that seemed even more true after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the outbreak of violence in scores of American cities following his death - the worst in American history, and the continuing war in Vietnam that seemed to slide further to disaster. The country - and the world - seemed to be in chaos.
On that fateful night of the California primary election on June 4, some 40 years ago now, volunteers like me (even though I was a kid - there were several other under aged people there too) and other supporters gathered at the local campaign headquarters to celebrate what we hoped would be a victory. After Bobby Kennedy's defeat in Oregon just one week earlier, it was no longer a sure thing that he would win in California - at least not to us in the room. The fear of that - of losing - seemed at the time an even greater fear than losing him to violence. Perhaps it was because we were younger - and somehow thought him invulnerable.
And while the possibility of another Kennedy assassination was on people's minds after JFK's death, and after King's murder, no one thought that this night, June 4, 1968, would end in another unbelievable act of violence and loss.
Now, close to midnight and into the early hour of June 5th, it was clear he won, and all of us - including the younger volunteers, even though we were under aged, had gathered earlier at the local Kennedy headquarters. With CBS News projecting his victory, we really believed that he would be the next president of the United States and that things would change. We all yelled in celebration.
On the television sets at the local headquarters we cheered him when Bobby Kennedy appeared at the Ambassador Hotel where an even louder crowd of supporters yelled his name, clapped and cheered.
It seemed then like a moment in time where it felt that power and destiny had shifted to the "good side", a moment that was thrilling, delirious and happy. .
There was a sense of profound joy because all of us there - everyone who supported RFK, believed now he was going to actually win the presidency. And a sense of hope because when he won, somehow the country would come back together again after years of violence, racial and economic divisions and war. We didn't know that those hopes would be taken away within minutes
And so the crowd at the local headquarters that we were at - and the crowd at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy spoke, listened with pure excitement to his victory speech - that at times felt like it was almost prayer for the country.
He thanked by name then California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who was behind RFK on the stage, for getting him into the presidential race. He made a special point and thanked Cesar Chavez, Burt Corona from the United Farm Workers who weren't able to get to the ballroom in time He also gave recognition and thanks to "my old friend" Dolores Huerta, also with the United Farm Workers, who stood next to him on the crowded stage, and thanked black leaders and friends, and labor, including a prominent labor organizer, Paul Schrade, who would also be shot and wounded in the shooting that was now only just a few minutes away.
Robert Kennedy, speaking without a prepared text, seemed, as friend said later "at ease with himself" with humor and passion and seemed to him, for the first time looking and sounding like a president:
"I think we can end the divisions in the United States. What I think is quite clear is, that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and more affluent, between age groups, or the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together. We are a great country, a selfless country, and a compassionate country, and I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.....so my thanks to you all, and it's on to Chicago, and lets win there."
Kennedy told the wildly cheering crowd at the Ambassador Hotel. We cheered and clapped too at the local headquarters.
And then he moved off the packed stage as people in the crowd there at the Ambassador Hotel and at the local headquarters continued to cheer.
The excitement had reached its peak and was now dissipating, with people at the local headquarters milling around, talking and starting to break up. It was late - and people were starting to get ready to leave.
Someone - an adult - was getting ready to take a few of us home because we were too young to drive.
And then someone shouted.
"Something's happened - something's happened!!!"
Another shout and people froze and then gathered around the blaring TV screen, with a growing sense of alarm and dread. What had happened? The crowd at the Ambassador Hotel now was beginning to scream in shock- but we couldn't tell what happened.
And then on TV, as we watched in stunned silence, as confusion and pandemonium broke out in Los Angeles, someone at the Ambassador Hotel ballroom, where moments before Kennedy had just left, yelled out implored the screaming crowd there that "...if you don't leave, we cannot get medical aid to the senator". Kennedy had been shot. A news anchor broke in saying "we have heard alarming reports that Senator Kennedy has been shot".
At that moment everyone at the local headquarters all at once gasped out loud, some people screaming "Oh my God no!!!!" "not Bobby, not Bobby!!! "No! No! No!" "Oh why? Why?"
The emotion of tears, shock and anguish was something almost indescribable - there at the Ambassador as the stunned crowd shrieked in disbelief and horror - and the local headquarters where we all reeled with the horrifying, unbelievable news. How could another assassination happen again to another leader we loved? .
Grown men and women wailed with grief, and collapsed into each others arms, crying "not again oh god not again" over and over - thinking of King, but also of JFK.
I remember an older black man sitting on a chair, hunched over sobbing, crying over and over "oh not him, Lord, not him" and hugged tightly by another campaign worker, who was white, and also crying.
The adult campaign workers got those of us who were too young, out of there fast, seeing our stunned reactions - and took us home. We were all in tears but silent. We all prayed in that car - and through the night - as did so many across the country.
The next day - on June 6th, just after 1 AM, he died. The campaign of hope was over. Whatever little bit of hope that continued after the death of Martin Luther King that April, seemed crushed after Robert Kennedy died in June.
I think so many people then felt that so many hopes and dreams that Robert Kennedy seemed to embody - as did Martin Luther King, died that day too.
Now, 40 years have passed, and the pain for so many Americans of losing that dream and hope to violence once again on that awful, awful night in 1968, feels as terrible now as it did then.
The California Disability Community Action Network, is a non-partisan link to thousands of Californians with developmental and other disabilities, people with traumatic brain injuries, the Blind, the Deaf, their families, community organizations and providers, direct care, homecare and other workers, and other advocates to provide information on state (and eventually federal), local public policy issues.