It's been 30 years since I made the walk from my rowhouse in the 400 block of East 22nd Street down to Penn Station. The walk couldn't have been any more than 10 blocks. I imagine I made it in 20 minutes or so. But I had time. The Train hadn't arrived yet, and wouldn't for a while.
Just a few days earlier my mother had risen at her usual hour to get ready for work. She always turned on the radio as she got dressed. That's when she got the announcement. She yelled up the stairs and gave me the news.
"Sen. Robert Kennedy died this morning."
"Damn!" I fumed, still lying in my bed. "How do I get out of this year?"
Two months earlier Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis. Could it have been not even five years since Senator Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas? Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated about four months before President Kennedy. In 1965, Malcolm X had been assassinated. I swung out of bed in my East Baltimore home and realized, in all the innocence of my 16 years, that Americans had not yet learned to agreeably disagree.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, according to author Robert G. Martin in a biography of the Kennedys, made an even more alarming observation after President Kennedy's death.
"Hate and malevolence have eaten into the bloodstream of American life," Warren lamented.
So I went to see The Train that June day in 1968 and wondered when the killing would end. I also went to pay tribute to the man who, according to the liberal myth-making machine of the day, stood for all the best in American liberalism: pro-civil rights, pro-equality, anti-Vietnam War. As Ted Kennedy waved his hand to acknowledge onlookers as The Train trudged through Baltimore on its way to Washington, I realized I had bought the myth completely.
Then I started reading.
Robert Kennedy - known to millions as Bobby - was less than a candidate for canonization. He was certainly more so than his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. But that's not a compliment. Civil rights leader Charles Evers, older brother of Medgar, said when he first met Bobby Kennedy the guy was as arrogant and ruthless as his reputation indicated. James Farmer, another civil rights leader, said both John and Robert Kennedy begrudged Farmer's not calling off the Freedom Rides through the South at Bobby's behest.
"The president's meeting [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev in a few days," Farmer remembers Bobby Kennedy, then U.S. attorney general, telling Martin Luther King, who was supposed to relay the message to Farmer. "We don't want to make him look bad. We just need a cooling-off period."
"We've been cooling off for 300 years," Farmer had King message Kennedy back. "If we cool off any more we'll be in a deep freeze. I will not call off the rides."
James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, became thereafter to Bobby Kennedy "that S.O.B. Farmer." It was not one of Kennedy's better moments. But Americans who observed the 30th anniversary of his death this past weekend weren't paying homage to that Kennedy. They were probably paying homage to the Bobby Kennedy described in Martin's book.
It was just after King was assassinated. Kennedy was on the presidential campaign trail. According to Martin:
"Big cities all over the country were burning that night. The rally at which Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak was in a black ghetto in Indianapolis. Advisers were warning him not to go, that it was too dangerous. The mayor pleaded with him to cancel his speech, and he was told that if he went, his police escort would turn back when his car reached the slum. . . . 'I know in my heart what you must be feeling,' Kennedy told the crowd when he arrived. 'I had a member of my family killed. For those of you who are black, and who feel hate for all white people, I want to say my brother was killed by a white man. . . . What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.' "
Biographer Martin noted that because of Bobby Kennedy's unswerving courage, Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that didn't go up in flames in the wake of King's death. That makes Bobby Kennedy, in my book, an American hero worth celebrating.
Pub date: 6/10/98