[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of the family!]
On the possibilities of a Robert Kennedy presidency, and what was lost with his assassination.
First, I want to give this James Baldwin quote, highlighted in the wonderful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2017), the space it deserves: “I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.” As usual, Baldwin has an excellent point—the presidency (and more exactly even the consideration or eligibility for the presidency) was itself a particularly glaring form of white privilege for more or less the entirety of American political history; even when Barack Obama finally broke through that barrier in 2008, the Birther movement (which spawned among other things our current horror show of a president) reflected a continued national inability to see an African American as a legitimate president.
So like nearly all of the white men who have run for president, and certainly like those from already prominent and presidential families, Bobby Kennedy did indeed begin from a position of significant privilege. But that doesn’t mean that all those candidates were the same, nor that their prospective presidencies would have been similar. And I would argue that Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign featured a candidate who (compared to just about any prior mainstream presidential candidate) was uniquely and passionately interested in African American Civil Rights. It’s true, and important, that in 1963, as Attorney General under his brother John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert had to some degree signed off on J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s initial surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. (although “to some degree” is an important phrase, as Hoover generally did what he wanted regardless of presidents or administrations). But it’s also true that Robert, who in response to a May 1962 interviewer’s question about “the big problem ahead for you,” answered “Civil Rights,” was a dedicated supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, from the biggest scales (using troops to enforce desegregation and protect Freedom Riders) to the more intimate ones (responding to Mildred Loving’s letter and helping the family pursue their ground-breaking court case). “Dr. King may be gone,” John Lewis recalls saying after King’s assassination, “but we still have Robert Kennedy.”
King’s April 4th assassination took place during the 1968 presidential primaries, in which Robert Kennedy was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination (incumbent Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run again). As Lewis’s quote thus reflects, Kennedy had brought that emphasis on Civil Rights to his campaign, along with broader but interconnected proposals for racial and economic justice, an advocacy for America’s youth, and social change. His June 4th, 1968 victory in the California primary solidified his position as the likely nominee; while addressing supporters the night of that victory in the ballroom of Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy was shot and fatally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24 year old Palestinian apparently angry at Kennedy’s support for Israel. The assassination was a horrific tragedy on its own terms, as any and all such killings are. But when we consider what a Bobby Kennedy presidency might have been—not least because eventual nominee Eugene McCarthy was soundly beaten by Richard Nixon, in a campaign in which Nixon relied overtly on the racist Southern Strategy—the tragedy is greatly compounded. We can never know for sure what Kennedy’s presidency would have looked like, but we can still mourn the loss of the chance to find out.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy connections you’d highlight?
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