Fifty years ago, on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy died from a gunshot wound inflicted moments after winning the California primary. His assassination came in the midst of a turbulent period in U.S. politics — indeed, a turbulent period in world politics, as revolutions swept Europe. As we mark the 50th anniversary of that year, when American society was fractured into staunch conservative and liberal factions, the ghosts of Bobby Kennedy’s America seem especially present.
But it is not just echoes of 1968 that we are hearing — in 2018, we are reaping the consequences of the sharp disillusionment forged 50 years ago.
At the time of his death, Kennedy was idolized, particularly among young people and minorities, as a beacon of hope within a country deeply divided over foreign and domestic policy. These young activists were drawn to Kennedy because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and the foreign policy being shaped by his nemesis, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Though Johnson had plenty of liberal bona fides from his work on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, minority voters came to support Kennedy because of his concern for poverty and equal employment opportunities. His work on civil rights had become especially pronounced following a tour of the Mississippi Delta in April 1967 to investigate the impact of Johnson’s War on Poverty programs.
In 1968, Kennedy appeared to be different from establishment Democrats. Eschewing the niceties of practical politics, Kennedy crusaded for the forgotten people, those often left on the margins of society. Kennedy’s ability to project a youthful vitality played well against the aging Johnson, and his campaign suddenly looked genuinely viable following Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for reelection. Nor were those unrelated developments: Rising opposition to the Vietnam War and the popularity of Kennedy’s dissent from the policies of the Johnson administration helped persuade Johnson to retire from public life.
Kennedy’s untimely death fueled the already growing disillusionment among young Americans and those on the left toward the federal government and establishment politicians. He had come to represent hope; his assassination, followed by the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey to be president, signaled a continuation of the Johnson-era politics that had fractured the Democratic Party and frustrated the activist left.
Kennedy’s death helped lead to the discontent coursing through America today. After his death, a political whiplash occurred as a conservative middle class sought the protection provided by national politicians such as Richard M. Nixon, who defended law and order in an increasingly volatile society. Those Americans didn’t see Kennedy and his followers as crusading for a fairer, more just society; they saw them as excusing criminal behavior, advocating for taking from hard-working Americans to give to less-deserving ones, and unpatriotically refusing to support the fight against communism. This same discontent from 50 years ago is apparent in the election of Donald Trump. Trump’s election was another moment of political whiplash as Barack Obama, who, like Kennedy, represented hope to minorities and the young, was replaced by a man who embodies the discontent that defines American society and appeals to the same conservative middle-class voters as Nixon did.
In 2018, disillusionment is evident across the political spectrum. The left remains sad and angry over Hillary Clinton’s loss and abhors Trump’s presidency. And Trump’s election can be explained, in part, as a result of the discontent with the federal government, political elites in both parties and the “liberal establishment” in the media, universities and the arts felt by an economically depressed white working class that vigorously defends what it deems to be traditional American values.
If Trump’s presidency was meant to end this disillusionment, it has so far failed. In the past year and a half, disenchantment and fissures have expanded throughout American society. On the right, the retirement of numerous Republicans from Congress appears to indicate a growing frustration with the continuing legislative gridlock, despite GOP control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. On the left, the apparent political death of the more moderate liberalism of Obama and Clinton has encouraged the rise of more left-wing policies espoused by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
In this environment, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is even more poignant. At the beginning of this year, his grandson, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s first State of the Union address. In his speech, Kennedy discussed economic disparity and racial divisions. He said that today, dignity remains dependent on “the color of your skin” and referred to the white-nationalist riot in Charlottesville last summer as a moment when “hatred and supremacy [were] proudly marching in our streets.” Kennedy paid tribute to the contribution of Freedom Riders and their activist descendants, Black Lives Matter, in helping in a constant struggle to make America “a more perfect union.”
Robert Kennedy could have delivered the same speech 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement. Although America no longer has de jure segregation (segregation by law), de facto segregation (segregation in practice) continues to divide communities with devastating consequences. Economic disparity remains acute, especially between races. The three counties Kennedy visited during his 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta still have poverty rates that are more than twice as high as the rest of America, with the second-highest rate of food insecurity. Infant mortality rates in the Mississippi Delta remain among the highest in the country.
While the ghosts of Bobby Kennedy and the America of 1968 continue to haunt us, we must remember the principles and policies that Kennedy espoused. Fifty years on, let us commemorate him by recognizing that when it comes to the concerns that Kennedy so powerfully articulated, including racism and poverty in America, there is still much improvement to be made. We must strive to work past our political divisions and create a more equitable and just society.
And there is one final lesson from Bobby Kennedy’s death and the subsequent failure to ameliorate the hardships he crusaded against: By waiting for a visionary leader to precipitate change, we leave ourselves captive to fate. But we are not powerless. Instead of waiting for a visionary leader, we can work now, at the local level, to forge a more just, more equitable society ourselves.