“We’ve had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.” Robert F. Kennedy, April 1968
Today is June 5th.
For my parents’ generation the day that “matters” is June 6th – D-Day, the day “the greatest generation” expressed what Lincoln called in the Gettysburg Address “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s the day U.S. history books celebrate.
For those of us who were and are their children, there’s another anniversary. It’s one that’s not celebrated but remembered instead (if at all) with the sense of disillusionment, rage, and pain that haunts our generation – the generation of “revolution” and “flower power” that became instead, (in too many cases, anyway) the “generation of swine.”
That’s today. June 5th. The day Bobby Kennedy was shot….
1968 was one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century. Student uprisings at Columbia University and other colleges across America introduced the nation to Students for a Democratic Society. Their treatment by police as the cops broke up the student demonstrations was but a prelude to the carnage to take place at the Democratic National Convention in August:
The students in Math (bldg.) (some of whom — the ones who weren’t killed in the 1970 East 11th Street townhouse explosion — later went on to the Democratic convention in Chicago, and then formed the Weather Underground) (deep breath…) received less gentle treatment — one student was thrown from a second-story window and landed on a professor (Jim Shenton), breaking the professor’s arm.
The assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4 rocked the country:
“Well, I donâ€™t know what will happen now; weâ€™ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesnâ€™t matter with me now, because Iâ€™ve been to the mountaintop. And I donâ€™t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But Iâ€™m not concerned about that now. I just want to do Godâ€™s will. And Heâ€™s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And Iâ€™ve looked over, and Iâ€™ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight , that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So Iâ€™m happy tonight; Iâ€™m not worried about anything; Iâ€™m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968.
After the meeting King and his party were taken to the Lorraine Motel. The following day King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the motel. His death was followed by rioting in 125 cities and resulted in forty-six people being killed.
And finally, there was Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson’s insistence on escalating the war in Southeast Asia (mostly on the advice of guys like Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, and Curtis LeMay) and using the military draft as a way to bolster the ranks of available troops ruined his chances of re-election. After barely winning the New Hampshire primary, Johnson withdrew from the election campaign.
Bobby Kennedy had entered the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination barely two weeks before – just after Johnson’s New Hampshire debacle. He’d done so reluctantly at the behest of voices as diverse as Pete Hamill and Cesar Chavez. In announcing his candidacy, Kennedy knew he’d incur the wrath of those within and without his party:
“I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.” Robert F. Kennedy, March 16, 1968.
Kennedy challenged Americans to work for racial and economic justice and spoke openly of the need to find a way to end the debacle in Vietnam. He castigated students who supported the War while benefiting from student deferments. On the night of April 4th in the wake of MLK’s assassination, he gave an impassioned impromptu speech on racial understanding to an inner city audience in Indianapolis that is credited with forestalling riots there.
Kennedy soon won primaries in a number of states and became Vice-President Hubert Humphrey’s main opponent. He went to California in hopes of winning there and defeating Humphrey at the Democratic Convention….
In 1968 North Carolina didn’t have a Presidential primary. Candidates had supporters and those supporters hired campaign workers to canvass for them. These canvassers knocked on doors and asked residents of voting age if they were Dems and if so, for whom were they voting? In the pre-Nixon “Southern strategy” South, voters were overwhelmingly Democratic, so there were lots of voters’ opinions to be gathered. This information was then fed to party leaders who advised delegates so that they would reflect the will of their citizenry. Canvassers were overwhelmingly young, mostly high school and college kids. The people taking our data and offering delegate voting advisement were old pols who probably already had their minds made up.
Yeah, it was a rotten system, but it was what we had. Reform wouldn’t come until the next Presidential election in 1972 as a result of the efforts of George McGovern, among others.
I was a canvasser for Bobby Kennedy. I was one of the youngest, not quite 16. I spent a long, long day on June 5th, my second day working, visiting dozens of homes, sometimes treated kindly, sometimes rudely, mostly indifferently. Bobby Kennedy was a civil rights supporter and that didn’t always play well in my little home town in NC. But I believed in Bobby. I felt like he was giving us a chance to get back to the magic I’d felt about our country as an elementary school kid during his brother’s administration.
Bobby would bring back Camelot. A sadder but wiser Camelot to be sure – but Camelot.
I finally got home about 9 PM on the night of June 5th, bone tired but happy. I ate some dinner, talked to my parents about my adventures going door to door trying to convince Southern Democrats that Bobby Kennedy was right, and managed to stay awake through the 11 PM news. The news was good – Bobby won California and would only have to beat Humphrey in a Chicago showdown. I faded quickly and my mom woke me and told me to go to bed before Johnny Carson got through his opening monologue….
It was still dark outside when I felt my mom’s hand shaking my shoulder. “You need to get up,” she said and started out of my room.
“What’s going on?”
My mother hung her head. “Bobby Kennedy’s been shot,” she said softly and walked out.
I was out of bed at warp speed and parked in front of the TV in the den. There the flickering pictures proved my mom’s information true. Another Kennedy assassinated. Another senseless act of violence on a man who asked only for peace and justice for those less fortunate than himself .
For me, the “last, best hope” gone.
I became a cynic in my political thinking, indifferent to a system that killed its best. I devoted my energies to rock and roll and wretched excess in the ensuing years. Except for a spite vote for McGovern in 1972 to piss off my Nixon loving father, I took no interest in politics, especially Presidential politics, until 1992 when an Xer friend shamed me into finally standing up again. I voted for Clinton because he reminded me a little of that hero of my youth – Bobby Kennedy.
And every June 5th I stop for a few moments and remember how I believed in what America could be once – try to get some of that belief back – and, to use an old Boomer chestnut, “keep on keeping on.”
And I ask Bobby to forgive me – and my generation – for failing to pick up his torch….
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