Five and a half years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and only months after Rev. Martin Luther King’s murder in April 1968, we woke up June 5 to hear that Bobby Kennedy had been shot about midnight in a hotel after his California primary victory. With his death 26 hours later, many young people and students like myself were overcome with profound feelings of lost hope, lost opportunities, and sadness. Plus, we knew that without his voice, the Vietnam War would go on and on.
Lyons Township High School (LTHS) in suburban Chicago area, where I was a student, was struck by the Kennedy-for-president fever in the late spring of 1968, as were many high schools and college campuses across the nation. A lot of my friends were involved in his campaign, going door-to-door and passing out literature. For many my age, Bobby Kennedy was young political voice reminiscent of his brother John, full of hope and promise, challenging young people to bridge racial and economic divides, and he was anti-war.
By the time Bobby Kennedy had entered the presidential race in March of 1968 against sitting President Lyndon Johnson, over 8,300 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Vietnam and nearly 58,000 had been wounded. Anti-war sentiment was reaching a climax, and anti-war rock songs filled the AM airwaves. Because reporters and cameramen were allowed on the battlefields with the soldiers back then, the evening news was filled with war’s realities — of battles, blood and bodies. It wasn’t unusual for me and many students to come home from school, turn on the TV, and watch the war while doing homework.
At LTHS, the guys in the junior and senior classes were closing in on 18 years old, and that meant they would be eligible for the draft. The boy sitting next to me in geometry could have been drafted, shot and buried a year later. Yet the voting age was still 21. It seemed unfair that someone at 18 was old enough to fight and die, but was too young to vote. Kennedy’s anti-war discourses verbalized the opinion of many students at that time: War was pointless.
In a 40-year-old television interview, Kennedy responded to a question about the Vietnam War. It is eerily reflective of some current anti-war sentiment:
… I think that what we are doing in South Vietnam is a mistake. I think the course that we are following is in error … . I’ve always said unless it is clear that it’s their war and we are over there to help them, we can’t win.
Now they (the South Vietnamese government) have had corruption and lack of land reform. They have failed to put in the democratic procedures that we should have and the democratic processes.
Maybe they don’t want it (war), but we want it. We are going in there, we’re killing South Vietnamese, we’re killing children, we’re killing women, we’re killing innocent people. Because we don’t want to have war fought on American soil … Do we have that right, here in the United States, to perform these acts, because we want to protect ourselves so it is not a greater problem for us in the United States?
I very seriously question whether we have that right.
Two years before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he talked about his activism during a speech at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, N.U.S.A.S. "Day of Affirmation" on June 6, 1966.
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Forty years later on the anniversary of his death, Bobby Kennedy’s words and actions still ring true.