For many of us old enough to remember we are observing media retrospectives of the events of our youth 50 years ago during the tumultuous, watershed year of 1968. It seems strange now in my mid 60s to think that we were serious or even knowledgeable about the world as teenagers, However, today’s Parkland teenagers remind us of our own passions and desire to change the world when the divisive war in Vietnam dissolved the American pride our parents achieved after winning World War II.
Bobby Kennedy had been a hero to me as my views on public issues first were formed. Two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination during the Presidential campaign was a devastating political and human event. My brother woke me up to tell me that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I had gone to bed after he won the California Democratic primary. His death seemed so personal. My parents were the same age as Robert and Ethel Kennedy. I was the same age as his son, Robert Jr.
There was no internet or social media then. We were glued to the television on a Saturday watching RFK’s funeral in New York and as the funeral train make its way as people solemnly lined the tracks from New York to Washington and Arlington National Cemetery.
Everyone thought that the country was coming apart. Some wanted Senator Edward Kennedy to run for President in his brother’s place, but in conversations people had at the time, friends would say, “He will be shot too.” We got used to political shootings just like we hold our breath waiting for another school shooting today. And, every week there was a Defense Department press release reporting that hundreds of young Americans had been killed in Vietnam the previous week.
Bobby was a regular visitor to Albany. In 1957, he spoke to the New York State Democratic party in Albany in place of JFK and said, “Brother John would be much happier here than in his sickbed, for he loves a good gathering of Democrats and he knows that there are no finer Democrats anywhere in the country than those gathered here in Albany tonight.”
It is hard for one not living at the time to know of the impact RFK had after JFK was assassinated. Bobby resigned as Attorney General and and ran and won a seat as our Senator from New York. With the state and country still in grief in 1964 over JFK’s assassination, Bobby was mobbed like a rock star as he campaigned all over the state. Thousands came to see him in Troy and Albany and in small towns across the North Country. My father who worked for the local media stood near him on Public Square in Watertown as thousands turned out. In Glens Falls, he was five hours late but so many waited faithfully for him, even in pajamas, after he arrived past midnight in Glens Falls he said, “I promise that win or lose, the day after election day, I’m coming back to Glens Falls.” And, he did.
In the four and a half years after JFK’s death, Bobby’s political persona changed. He had been the political operative for his brother. On his own, he spoke of idealism and wanted to inspire people “to seek a newer world” in a time of terrible turmoil during the Vietnam War. There was a kind of a soul force to him as he quoted the Greeks and urged calm following Martin Luther’s King’s murder. For a man born in privilege, power and money, he had a remarkable ability to relate to blue collar workers, the poor and the minorities. He went to Mississippi to see the shacks where poor African Americans lived. He was with Cesar Chavez and championed the farmworkers in California.
Most of all he was the one who appealed to and embraced the young. Like JFK who started the Peace Corps and the push to the moon, he had optimism for the future because of young people. He urged them to do great things. In South Africa, he made his famous Day of Affirmation speech to South African youth living in a country divided by Apartheid and saw young people as the hope for change,
“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
The Kennedys inspired many young people at the time like me to pursue careers in community action and public service. Out of college in the 1970s, I “enlisted” in the war on Poverty, I moved to Albany to work in state level grassroots advocacy, a path that eventually led to public service as director of a state agency.
In 1968, Bobby Kennedy had a chance to heal the nation, to end the Vietnam War, to seek racial peace. He was calling on America to be its best, forward thinking, patriotic and strong. He believed in American democracy despite its flaws in that era of Vietnam and racial tensions. He was intent on trying to address them. We missed him all through the years of our youth. How we still need someone like Robert Kennedy who can try to appeal to our best and heal this badly divided nation.
Michael Burgess, Delmar
Former Director, New York State Office for the Aging