Robert F. Kennedy

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Robert F. Kennedy in the White House cabinet room, 1964.

Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), also called "RFK," was one of two younger brothers of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and was appointed by his brother as Attorney General for his administration. As one of President Kennedy's most trusted advisors, RFK worked closely with the President during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, after his brother's death, Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of New York. He was assassinated in 1968 shortly after delivering a speech celebrating his victory in the California presidential primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

RFK's resounding legacy is in the domain of civil rights. Along with his brother, he brought the first sense of justice for minorities to the White House—though, like many of their generation, the brothers were slow to grasp the monumental injustice of racism in America. He admitted; "I won't say I stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before I became Attorney General, but my fundamental belief is that all people are created equal."[1]

In the mid-1960s "Bobby" became the voice of a socially-conscious young America as he embraced the causes not just of black America, but of all minorities, as well as that of the impoverished in America and throughout the world.

Childhood and Education

Robert Kennedy was born November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh of nine children, to Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. His father, the son of poor South Boston Irish immigrant parents, was then already amassing a fortune in the stock market and associated speculative enterprises.

Home only at intervals, Joe Kennedy left the day-to-day management of the family to his capable wife, who was the daughter of John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, who served three terms in the House of Representatives and was Mayor of Boston.[2]

The year after Bobby's birth, the family moved to New York, first to Riverdale, then to Bronxville.

RFK graduated from Milton Academy in Massachusetts, then served in the United States Navy Reserve from 1944 through 1946, having completed officer training (the V-12 Navy College Training Program) at Bates College. He went on to attend Harvard University, where he became a three-year letterman for the Harvard football team, graduating in 1948. He then enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law, and earned his jurisprudence degree in 1951.[3] Following law school, Kennedy managed his brother John's successful 1952 Senate campaign.

Career until 1960

Kennedy began his career working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, with whom he shared hard-line anti-Communist views.[4] He served as Counsel with Roy M. Cohn to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into un-American activities during the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1953-1954. He resigned from this committee however, in March 1953, due to dissatisfaction with the basis of many of the investigations. As he stated, "I thought it was headed for disaster…. Most of the investigations were instituted on the basis of some preconceived notion by the chief counsel or his staff members and not on the basis of information that had been developed…. I thought McCarthy made a mistake in allowing the Committee to operate in such a fashion, told him so and resigned."[5] When the Committee's Democratic senators offered Kennedy a seat on the Committee as minority counsel, he promptly accepted, over McCarthy's objections. Ultimately, the Senate censured McCarthy in December 1954.

RFK soon made a name for himself as the chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee hearings, which began in 1956. In a dramatic scene, Kennedy squared off against Jimmy Hoffa, President of the Teamster’s Union (who disappeared without trace in 1975) during the antagonistic argument that marked Hoffa's testimony. Kennedy left the Rackets Committee in 1959 in order to run his brother John's successful Presidential campaign.

Attorney General

After the 1960 Presidential election, RFK was appointed Attorney General by President Kennedy. As Attorney General, he continued his crusade against organized crime, often at the resistance of Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover.

Organized crime had existed in the U.S. at least since Prohibition. However, Herbert Hoover denied its existence as nothing more than imagination. In 1962 Kennedy uncovered the existence of a national crime syndicate and began to aggressively prosecute its members. [6] Convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800 percent during his term. His book The Enemy Within presented the results of his initial investigations.

Kennedy also began to seriously enforce civil rights and equal opportunity for African-Americans. He expressed the Administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."

In September 1962, he sent U.S. Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a Federal court order admitting the first African-American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African American lawyer, Thelton Henderson, and began to work cautiously with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow segregation laws.

He also played a crucial role as a facilitator and as an unquestioned confidante of the President in the strategy to avert war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Due to his far-sightedness, the United States decided to blockade Cuba instead of initiating a military air strike that might have led to nuclear war. His second major contribution during this crisis was his contact with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and subsequent negotiations with the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.[7]

The Assassination of JFK

Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by her brothers-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, walking from the White House as part of the funeral procession accompanying President Kennedy's casket to St. Matthew's Cathedral

The assassination of President Kennedy, which happened two days after Robert Kennedy's 38th birthday, was a brutal shock to the world, the whole nation, and the Kennedy family—but especially to Robert. His brother's assassination plunged Robert into a deep melancholic grief. He seemed to have physically shrunk and his face became a mask surrounding eyes enveloped in sadness. He was often seen walking alone, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.[8] Clearly his brother's death brought a great burden upon his shoulders. He mourned John's death and the fact that so much of the Kennedy vision and promise was left tragically and ultimately unfulfilled.

For the remainder of his life he seemed to live with thoughts of his brother never far from the surface of his mind. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Senator Kennedy had just arrived in Indianapolis during a campaign stop. Rejecting his advisors' recommendations to forego the speech, he announced King's assassination to the crowd. He offered empathetic condolences to the family, sharing his sorrow at the loss of his brother several years before. He spoke from his heart about King and appealed for faith and hope. He implored the crowd to seek reconciliation between the races. His extemporaneous speech ended with the words, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people." [9] Indianapolis was one of the few large cities with a large African-American population that did not experience riots in the days following King's death. Thousands of people were injured and 43 were killed in riots throughout the U.S. but Indianapolis remained quiet.

At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Bobby was due to give a speech prior to the showing of a memorial film dedicated to the late President. As he was introduced, tens of thousands of delegates, party workers, young members, observing journalists and others broke into thunderous applause of support for the nervous and emotionally fragile Robert, standing at the podium. He broke down and began to cry. Despite repeated appeals by him and the chairman of the convention, the audience did not stop their display of support for Robert. The applause continued for 22 minutes.

Robert mustered enough strength to deliver the speech, but broke into tears backstage. He would remain personally devastated for months. His elder brother's death meant that he was now the eldest living son of Joseph Kennedy, and the head not only of his own large family, but of his sisters, of the children of his brothers and sisters, and even of his younger brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Robert was now the young leader of the Kennedy family, which had been wracked by tragedies.

Senator from New York

Senator Robert Kennedy discusses school with young Ricky Taggart in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City.

Soon after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert left the cabinet to run for a seat in the United States Senate representing New York. He defeated incumbentKenneth Keating in the November 1964 election. During his three and a half years as a U.S. Senator, he visited apartheid-ruled South Africa, war-ravaged Southeast Asia and actively worked within America's gates.

Kennedy determined to solve the problems of New York City's poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He persuaded white-owned businesses to form partnerships with minority communities, bringing in jobs and social services, building-renovations and new housing. The success of the 'Bed-Stuy' project prompted him to offer it as a nationwide model. Surprising to him, he met with resistance from conservatives and liberals alike. His analysis was that the conservatives often agreed with him but were afraid of losing the support of their constituents, and that the liberals preferred to simply provide funds in the form of welfare and social services, rather than investing themselves in solving the problems.

In order to emphasize the need for action, Kennedy went on a fact-finding mission to some of the most impoverished areas in the United States. One of his trips took him to Mississippi's poorest slums. Marian Wright, an NAACP lawyer and activist, accompanied him. She reported that she initially thought Kennedy a mere publicity-seeker, but soon changed her mind. She reported:

"He did things I wouldn't do. He went into the dirtiest, filthiest, poorest black homes…and he would sit with a baby who had open sores and whose belly was bloated from malnutrition, and he'd sit and touch and hold those babies. I didn't do that! But he did."[10]

As Senator, Robert endeared himself to African-Americans and other minorities, such as Native Americans and immigrant groups. He spoke forcefully, aligned himself with leaders of the civil rights struggle, and led the Democratic Party to pursue a more aggressive agenda to eliminate discrimination on all levels. Kennedy supported busing, integration of all public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and anti-poverty social programs to increase education, offer opportunities for employment and provide health care for millions of disenfranchised and despairing African-Americans.

After visiting Southeast Asia in 1967, he reversed his prior stance and called for a halt in further escalation of the Vietnam War. Making this decision was difficult for him, for he knew that President Kennedy had increased military support for South Vietnam, and had envisioned a major U.S. commitment to defending Southeast Asia and the Indochina region from Communist aggression.

Presidential candidacy and assassination

Kennedy, speaking from the platform of a campaign train, in 1968 ran an exhausting and intense campaign.

Kennedy's presidential campaign was powered by an aggressive vision for civil freedom and justice, the expansion of social development programs beyond Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society programs, active minority participation in American politics and outright opposition to the conservative attitudes of the American South and the aloof attitude of many Americans to serious social problems like poverty and racism.

Originally Kennedy had denied that he was going to run for the Democratic nomination in 1968 against President Lyndon Johnson, who was qualified to run for a third term by the 22nd Amendment due to the fact that he served less than half of JFK's four-year term. After Johnson won only a very narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968 against Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, an anti-war candidate, Kennedy too declared his candidacy for the Presidency on March 16. On March 31, Johnson appeared on television to state that he was no longer a candidate for re-election.

Kennedy had gained immense popularity among American youth as he reached out to the disadvantaged and downtrodden. His campaign relied largely on his ability to run an emotional and intensely personal campaign. He challenged students on the "hypocrisy" of draft deferments, visited numerous small towns, and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches, often in troubled inner cities. He made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part lead to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia.

Kennedy won the Indiana and Nebraska Democratic primaries, but lost the Oregon primary. On June 4, 1968, he scored a major victory in his drive toward the Democratic presidential nomination when he won primaries in South Dakota and in California. After he addressed his supporters in the early morning hours of June 5 in a ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, he left the ballroom through a service area to greet supporters working in the hotel's kitchen. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Sirhan B. Sirhan, a 24-year-old Los Angeles resident, fired a .22 caliber revolver directly into the crowd surrounding Kennedy. Six people were wounded, including Kennedy, who was shot in the head at close range. Kennedy never regained consciousness and died in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968 at the age of 42.

The funeral mass was held at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on June 8, during which his younger brother, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy famously eulogized him with the words:

My brother need not be idolized, nor enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world.

Following the mass, Kennedy's body was transported by train to Washington, D.C., where he was buried near his brother, John, in Arlington National Cemetery. Senator Kennedy's funeral has been the only one ever to take place at night at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was a Palestinian Christian, born March 19, 1944, in Jerusalem, Palestine (now Israel), the fifth son in his family, which emigrated to the U.S. when Sirhan was 12 years old. The family belonged to the Arab-based society in the divided region, and as a child, Sirhan saw the state in which he lived blistered by upheaval—he saw entire villages destroyed in the Jewish-Arab war. Kennedy's support for Israel is believed to be a motivating factor in the assassination, though Sirhan has often claimed no memory of the incident.[11]

Sirhan was convicted in a trial in which his guilt was never in question, only his mental state at the time of the shooting, and received a death sentence that was commuted to life sentence in prison for the crime. It is generally believed, but has never been proven ballistically, that Sirhan fired the shots that hit Kennedy. Unanswered questions in the poorly run investigation have led many to believe that the official account of Kennedy's assassination is inconsistent or incomplete and that his death was the result of a conspiracy. Diary entries in Sirhan's handwriting indicated the motive for the killings was the U.S. support for Israel during the June 1967 Six Days War.[12]


Central to Robert Kennedy's politics and personal attitude to life and its purpose was his Catholicism, which he inherited from his family. Throughout his life, Robert made reference to his faith, how it informed every area of his life, and gave him the strength to re-enter politics following the assassination of his brother. He was easily the most religious of his brothers. Whereas John maintained an aloof sense of his faith, Robert approached his duties to humankind through the prism of Catholicism.

Although neither he nor his brother John realized at first the enormous evil represented by the Jim Crow laws and the moral imperative that informed the civil rights movement, Kennedy became increasingly committed to issues of peace, justice and human dignity. During his presidential campaign, his speeches resounded with a social consciousness that was both passionate and intellectually powerful.

His originally reluctant opposition to the Vietnam War was based on the view that the U.S. was acting as if it were the only country in the world. He was passionate about ending hunger in the U.S. and, perhaps in reaction to his days with the Senate Un-American Activities subcommittee, upheld dissent as a vital right in any truly democratic society. Kennedy believed poverty to be a "national disgrace." His campaign speeches have been recently edited and published, tellingly, as The Gospel According to RFK.

Kennedy's son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a renowned campaigner for clean water and air, environmental lawyer and a devout Catholic, is hugely influenced by Francis of Assisi's love for nature and by his prayer for peace, a noble legacy for his father.

Personal life

In 1950, he married Ethel Skakel, who would eventually give birth to 11 children:

  • Kathleen Hartington (b. 1951)
  • Joseph Patrick II (b. 1952)
  • Robert Francis, Jr. (b. 1954)
  • David Anthony (1955-1984)
  • Mary Courtney (b. 1956)
  • Michael LeMoyne (1958-1997)
  • Mary Kerry (b. 1959)
  • Christopher George (b. 1963)
  • Matthew Maxwell Taylor (b. 1965)
  • Douglas Harriman (b. 1967)
  • Rory Elizabeth Katherine (b. 1968)

The last child, Rory, was born several months after her father's assassination.

Kennedy was always a loyal son, brother, and family man. Despite the fact that his father's most ambitious dreams centered on his elder brothers, Robert was fiercely loyal to his father Joseph and brothers Joe Jr. and John. His competitiveness was admired by his father and elder brothers, while his loyalty bound them affectionately closer to each other than most brothers are. Working on the campaigns of John Kennedy, Robert was more involved, passionate and tenacious than the candidate himself, obsessed with every detail, fighting out every battle and taking workers to task.

Kennedy owned a home at the well-known Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, but spent most of his time at his estate in Virginia, known as Hickory Hill, located just outside Washington, D.C. His widow, Ethel, and his children continued to live at Hickory Hill after his death in 1968. Ethel Kennedy now lives full time at the family's vacation home in Hyannis Port.


Justice President George W. Bush (speaking) and Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy at a government department building renaming for Robert Kennedy
1998 Robert Kennedy special dollar coin

A number of honors have been bestowed upon Senator Kennedy since his death, one being renaming the D.C. Stadium in Washington, D.C. to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969, a special dollar coin by the United States Mint in 1998, and dedication of the Department of Justice headquarters in his name on what would have been his 76th birthday, in Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2001, by U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. [13]

Numerous roads, public schools, and other facilities across the United States were named in memory of Robert F. Kennedy in the months and years after his death.

In an effort to not just remember the late Senator, but continue his work helping the disadvantaged, a small group of private citizens launched the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps in 1969, which today helps more than 800 abused and neglected children each year.

To keep the vision of Kennedy alive, his family and friends founded a living memorial in 1968. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial is a nonprofit charitable organization that works to realize his dream of a peaceful and just world through domestic and international programs that work to empower the disadvantaged and oppressed, build our next generation of leaders, and tackle the toughest problems facing our society.

The Center for Human Rights of the RFK Memorial partners with human rights activists who, through years of dedication to righting social injustices in over 20 different countries, have made progress toward ending human rights violations. They present the annual RFK Human Rights Award, the RFK Journalism Award, and the RFK Book Award. [14]


Considered an eloquent speaker generally, RFK also wrote extensively on politics and issues confronting his generation:

  • The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee's Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions (1960)
  • To Seek a Newer World (1967)
  • Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969)


  • "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
  • "But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?"
  • "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."
  • "Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change."
  • "Some men see things as they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not." (quoting Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  • "History has placed us all, black and white, within a common border and under a common law. All of us, from the wealthiest and most powerful of men to the weakest and hungriest of children, share one precious possession: the name ‘American.’ It is not easy to know what that means. But in part to be an American means to have been an outcast and a stranger, to have come to the exiles' country, and to know that he who denies the outcast and stranger among us at that moment also denies America." (Hallmark 1969, 31)
  • "It is from numberless 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 that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance."


  1. David Reitzes, 1998. The Revolutionary Senator: Remembering Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  2. Arlington National Cemetery Website. Robert Francis Kennedy Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  3. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress. Robert Francis Kennedy Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  4. Nick Fraser, RFK BBC.
  5. Reitzes, 1998. The Revolutionary Senator: Remembering Bobby David Reitzes Homepage. Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  6. Reitzes, 1998. The Revolutionary Senator: Remembering Bobby David Reitzes Homepage. Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  7. Thinkquest. The Cuban Missile Crisis Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  8. Arlington National Cemetery Website. Robert Francis Kennedy Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  9. The Assassination of Martin Luther King Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  10. Reitzes, 1998.The Revolutionary Senator: Remembering Bobby David Reitzes Website. Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  11. Time Warner Company. Sirhan Sirhan Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  12. [1]"Sirhan Sirhan, Assassin / Convict" Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  13. Arlington National Cemetery Website. Robert Francis Kennedy Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  14. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.The Organization Retrieved January 26, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • DiEugenio, James and Lisa Pease,.The Assassinations. London: Feral House, 2003. ISBN 0922915822
  • Hilty, James M. Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1997, vol 1 to 1963. ISBN 1566395666
  • Kennedy, Robert F. The Gospel According to RFK, with Norman Macafee, ed. Jackson, TN: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0813391571
  • Kennedy, Robert F, Jr. St Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy. Hyperion: New York, 2005. ISBN 0786818751
  • Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. Robert Kennedy and His Times. New York: Mariner Books, 2002. ISBN 0618219285
  • Shesol, Jeff. Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997. ISBN 0393318559
  • Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0743203291
  • RFK (Documentary Film from the Public Broadcasting Service, USA)
  • Robert F. Kennedy: Promises to Keep. Kansas City, MO: Hallmark Editions, 1969. ISBN 875290086.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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