TIME MACHINE: Assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)

TIME MACHINE: ASSASSINATION OF SENATOR ROBERT F. KENNEDY (1925-1968)

Last June marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, in Los Angeles, California. Kennedy was fatally shot by a gun man, while walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel with his wife Ethel Kennedy, former FBI agent William Barry, Olympian athlete Rafer Johnson and former football player Rosey Grier

Kennedy was the seventh child of former U.S. Ambassador to Britain and businessman Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Following the election of his older brother John F. Kennedy as the 35th U.S. President in 1960, Kennedy served as Attorney General for his brother’s administration. In November 1968, Jack Kennedy was assassinated by a sniper in Dallas, Texas. Nine months following his brother’s death, Robert Kennedy ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing the State of New York and beat his opponent, Kenneth Keating. Kennedy spent his years in the Senate, Kennedy advocated gun control and the Johnson Administration’s Great Society program for the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. He served on the Senate Labor Committee and supported the campaigns for better working conditions for laborers. And by 1968, Kennedy had shifted his opinion on American involvement in Vietnam by advocating the eventual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese soldiers from South Vietnam.

While meeting with labor activist Cesar Chavez in Delano, California in February 1968, Kennedy decided to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President. However, Johnson changed his mind about running for re-election following the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that occurred between late January and late March 1968. Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on March 16, 1968. His main opponents for the Democratic nomination were Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and later, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy ran on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power, and social change. His policy objectives did not sit well with the business community, where he was viewed as something of a liability. Many businessmen also opposed Kennedy’s support of tax increases to social programs.

Kennedy learned of the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; while visiting Indianapolis, Indiana. Riots broke out in many cities following King’s death, with the exception of Indianapolis. There, Kennedy gave his famous “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” speech on April 5, 1968. Later, he attended King’s funeral with his younger brother Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and his sister-in-law, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. He won the Indiana Democratic primary on May 7, 1968; and the Nebraska primary on May 14. But he lost the Oregon primary to Senator McCarthy on May 28. The Kennedy campaign hoped that the senator would beat McCarthy for the California primary, knocking the latter out of the race; and eventually face Vice-President Humphrey in Chicago, Illinois.

The 1968 California presidential primary elections were held on Tuesday, June 4, 1968. Kennedy claimed victory over McCarthy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, four hours after the California polls closed. He spoke on the telephone with one of his major supporters, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. Then around 12:10 a.m., Kennedy addressed his campaign supporters in the hotel’s Embassy Room ballroom. He ended his speech with the following words:

“My thanks to all of you; and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!”

Since presidential candidates were not entitled to Secret Service protection back in 1968, Kennedy’s only official security was William Barry, a former F.B.I. agent. Both Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier served as unofficial bodyguards. He had planned to meet another gathering of supporters in another part of the Ambassador Hotel by making his way through the Embassy Room ballroom. However, reporters wanted a second press conference and Kennedy’s campaign aide, Fred Dutton, suggested to Barry that the senator should forgo the second gathering and instead head for the press area, via the hotel’s kitchen and pantry area behind the ballroom. After his speech, Kennedy started to leave the ballroom, when Barry stopped him and suggested the alternate route through the kitchen corridor. Both Barry and Dutton tried to clear a path for Kennedy, but he was hemmed in by a crowd and followed maître d’hôtel Karl Uecker through a back exit. While Kennedy allowed Uecker to lead him through the hotel’s kitchen area, he shook hands with people he encountered. As they started down a narrow passageway, Kennedy turned and shook hands with busboy Juan Romero. At that moment, Sirhan Sirhan stepped down from a low tray-stacker beside the ice machine, rushed past Uecker, and fired a .22 caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver at Kennedy at least three times or more, before the latter fell to the floor.

Romero cradled the wounded Kennedy’s head, while sitting on the floor. Sirhan was subdued by Barry, Johnson, Grier, and writer George Plimpton, while he continued to shoot in random directions. Five other people were wounded:

*William Weisel of ABC News
*Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers union,
*Democratic Party activist Elizabeth Evans
*Ira Goldstein of the Continental News Service
*Irwin Stroll, Kennedy campaign volunteer

Ethel Kennedy, who was three months pregnant, stood outside the crush of people at the scene seeking help. Someone led her to her husband and she knelt beside him. Thirty minutes later, Kennedy was transferred to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Surgery began at 3:12 a.m. and lasted three hours and forty minutes. Spokesman Frank Mankiewicz announced at 5:30 p.m. that Kennedy’s doctors were concerned over his failure to show any improvement. Kennedy had been shot three times. Despite extensive neurosurgery to remove the bullet and bone fragments from his brain, he was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, 1968; nearly 26 hours after being shot.

Historians believed that Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab with Jordanian citizenship, had shot Kennedy in retaliation for the latter’s support of Israel during the Six Day War. However, others have criticized this oversimplification of Sirhan’s motives, pointing out that these historians have failed to take account of his psychological problems. Sirhan’s lawyers attempted to use a defense of diminished responsibility during the trial, while he tried to confess to the crime and change his plea to guilty on several occasions. With Lynn Compton serving as prosecutor, Sirhan was eventually convicted of the murder of Robert F. Kennedy on April 17, 1969. He was sentenced to death six days later. However, the sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 1972; after the California Supreme Court invalidated all pending death sentences that were imposed prior to 1972. This was due to the California v. Anderson ruling. Since that time, Sirhan has been denied parole 15 times and is currently incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in southern San Diego County.

Robert Kennedy’s funeral was held on June 8, 1968 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. His brother, Ted Kennedy, gave the eulogy. Following the mass, Kennedy’s body was transported by a slow-moving train to Washington, D.C., where he was buried near his older brother John, in Arlington National Cemetery.

After the assassination, Congress altered the Secret Service’s mandate to include protection for presidential candidates. Ethel gave birth to Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy in December 1968. Although he had a slight lead over Kennedy at the time of the latter’s death, Vice-President Humphreys became the leading Democratic nominee for the 1968 Presidential election and won the nomination during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, later that summer. He eventually lost the election to the Republican candidate, former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, in November 1968.

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