Retropolis

RFK’s 1968 presidential bid sparked hope, then despair

Robert F. Kennedy had decided he wasn’t going to run. It was 1968, five years since his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated. And though the senator from New York disagreed with President Lyndon B. Johnson on policy — especially the Vietnam War — he was hesitant to challenge the man who had succeeded his brother.

But on March 16, 1968, 50 years ago, RFK told the world he had changed his mind — a decision that exhilarated many Americans, briefly inspiring hope, then despair. A walk back through that tumultuous spring explains why.

Cover photo: AP

Jim McNamara/ The Washington Post

March 10, 1968

RFK helps Cesar Chavez end his hunger strike

On a plane trip to support labor leader Chavez, Kennedy told a few of his closest advisers that he intended to run for president. For a month, he had felt conflicted. He had told reporters he would “not be a candidate for president under any foreseeable circumstances.” But then came the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and he felt a sense of duty.

AP

March 12, 1968

McCarthy overperforms in primary

After Kennedy and George McGovern turned them down, the “Dump Johnson” movement persuaded Sen. Eugene McCarthy to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. He did — and at the party’s first primary in New Hampshire on March 12, 1968, McCarthy claimed 42 percent of the vote. Johnson won 50 percent. It was clear that Kennedy, still a bystander, would have a real chance.

AP

March 16, 1968

RFK announces presidential bid

Just days later, from the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office Building, RFK launched his own campaign for the White House. It was there where his older brother announced his presidential bid. RFK articulated some of the same liberal values, speaking of civil rights and riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles; suicide rates at American Indian reservations and the “empty idleness of Appalachia”; poverty in the south and the Vietnam War.

“I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent president. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election.”

AP

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JFK Library

AP

AP

March 28, 1968

RFK files to run in Indiana primary

For his first presidential primary, Kennedy chose Indiana. “If we can win in Indiana, we can win in every other state, and win when we go to the convention in August,” he said to a cheering crowd in Indianapolis.

Richard J. Sroda/AP

March 31, 1968

LBJ won’t seek reelection

Two weeks later, during a televised address to the American people about the Vietnam War, Johnson shocked the nation when he announced at the end of his speech that he would not seek reelection. “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

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LBJ Library

AP

April 4, 1968

In Indianapolis, RFK tells crowd MLK is dead

As he exited a plane in Indianapolis at night, having just finished up his first campaign appearances in the state at Notre Dame and Ball State, Kennedy heard the news: Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. The civil rights leader had been assassinated, so Kennedy — in the middle of a black neighborhood in Indianapolis — announced it to the crowd, despite warnings from police that things could get violent. But his words helped keep Indianapolis from burning that night as riots erupted in major cities across the country.

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But violence, eventually, came for Kennedy, too. Two months after MLK’s assassination and five years after his brother’s, a man with a revolver fatally shot Kennedy in the head in Los Angeles after a major campaign victory in California.

Just three months after it began, Kennedy’s bid for president was over.

Barry Sweet/AP