From RFK, a living legacy

The Baltimore Sun

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is still moved by the strangers who approach her to describe how her father inspired them.

Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, says that his dear friend Robert F. Kennedy's murder transformed him into a gun control activist, a move that cost him his political career.

And civil rights advocate Kweisi Mfume remembers 1968 as a pivotal year of his life, with Kennedy's death as one in a series of events prompting him to pursue a political career that led him to the halls of Congress.

Forty years ago, Kennedy was leaving a victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was felled by an assassin's bullets. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary for president. He died on June 6, 1968 at age 42.

His death shattered his family, people across the nation and a generation of young idealists who had looked to him with hope during a decade of great upheaval. Though shaken, many went on to follow his path. Today, notable Marylanders point to his legacy of social justice, integrity and courage as an enduring inspiration for their lives and deeds.

"Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come up to me and say they were affected by my father's legacy in some way," Townsend, now 56, said during an interview this week at a Lutherville coffee shop.

"1968 was really changing America, and that change of America is something we are still gripping with today. That, in a sense, is why he is so compelling."

Townsend, who was Maryland's first female lieutenant governor, doesn't discuss where she was or what she was doing when her father was killed.

"That's voyeuristic; I'm not going to talk about that," she says curtly. But she acknowledges that 40 years later, she still struggles with grief.

"It's really sad, it's sad for my family and it's sad for our country," she said. "It's often said, when someone dies, time will heal all wounds. Well, no, time does not heal all wounds. It's really raw, and it's very awful. It's important it is not forgotten."

Robert Kennedy's death came two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was slain in Dallas.

During Robert Kennedy's passionate 82-day campaign for the presidency, he identified with the swelling outrage about the Vietnam War and racial injustice at home, promising to fight poverty, end the war and heal divisions.

But early on, some historians note, Kennedy's career was less idealistic, his actions less compassionate. He developed a reputation for ruthlessness with enemies and fierce defense of his older brother.

But those close to him, such as Tydings, saw many facets: thoughtful and tough, passionate and strategic, outgoing and introspective.

Tydings, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, worked closely with Kennedy when he was U.S. attorney general in his brother's administration. Later, they served in the U.S. Senate together and became close friends, with Tydings heading to Kennedy's Hickory Hill estate in northern Virginia on the weekends for touch football games and Kennedy visiting Tydings' farm in Harford County, his daughter Kathleen in tow.

Of all the Kennedy memorabilia lining the walls of his Washington office, Tydings cherishes a photo of him and RFK taken during a hearing of the Senate Committee of the District of Columbia. Home improvement operators were preying on city dwellers, remembers Tydings. In the photo, Kennedy is staring ahead, his eyes penetrating.

"If you look at him, that's the real Bobby Kennedy," he said. "Really worried about protecting those who needed to be protected; willing to wade in where angels fear to tread. Well, there were not many like him."

The last time Tydings saw Kennedy was in 1968, on the campaign trail in Omaha. The pair sat down to dinner, to strategize, Tydings assumed.

"But all he said to me was, 'Don't worry about issues and meeting people. Take your day and fly all over Nebraska and observe the way that Native Americans are treated ... and go back to Washington and figure out a way to do something about it,' " Tydings remembers him saying. "I don't think any other political leader at the time would say such a thing. It was extraordinary."

Two weeks later, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan B. Sirhan with an unregistered handgun.

Tydings responded by becoming a leading advocate of gun control. The NRA lobbied aggressively against his efforts, and Tydings lost his 1970 re-election bid by some 20,000 votes.

"He certainly gave me confidence to take on the difficult, politically unpopular things," Tydings said of Kennedy. "A lot of people called me insane, said it would cost me the election. They were right. But he taught me courage. You have to do what you think is right."

In Kennedy's Justice Department, there was an air of idealism, and the attorney general surrounded himself with vigorous, talented lawyers eager to follow his lead taking on public corruption and white-collar crime, said Steven H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney from Maryland. Kennedy's role as an aggressive enforcer of the law influenced Sachs' own legal career.

"We were all very much caught up in the idea that something new and exciting and change-making was happening in government and in this country," said Sachs.

As attorney general, Kennedy had a reputation of dropping by the office unannounced, peppering his legion of attorneys with questions.

"People saw that as a positive," said Peter Edelman, who worked in Kennedy's Justice Department and later as a campaign aide. "They were tremendously moved that he was personally interested in what they were doing."

Edelman, now a law professor at Georgetown University, accompanied Kennedy on trips nationwide, including to the Mississippi Delta, where Kennedy, then a senator, would see hunger and desperation firsthand.

"We were visiting a home, and I saw him bend over, trying to get a response out of this poor malnourished child," he said.

"That he was spending that much time focused on this was impressive."

It was a moment that Edelman's soon-to-be-wife Marian Wright, a civil rights attorney and later founder of the Children's Defense Fund, would remember as "when she knew he was for real," recounted Edelman.

Fighting poverty and racial injustice became hallmarks of Kennedy's 1968 campaign, said Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: 82 Days That Inspired America. His murder devastated the activists he inspired, Clarke said.

"He was seen as the last hope of Democrats and liberals of the '60s," he said.

Mfume was 19 at the time, living in Baltimore, enrolled in GED classes and working at a bakery part-time.

"There was no year like 1968 before, and there has been none since," said Mfume. "Many of us were still mourning and trying to make sense out of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and then all of a sudden, Bobby Kennedy is killed by an assassin's bullet."

Mfume remembers his teary-eyed uncle waking him to tell him Kennedy had been shot. Mfume, already coping with rage after King's death, grew angrier.

But when his mentor, Parren J. Mitchell, announced a bid for Congress, Mfume channeled his frustration into action and volunteered. Mitchell lost but encouraged Mfume not to become distraught.

"The one thing that Bobby Kennedy emphasized for me at that time was the belief that every person could make a difference," he said.

"That resonated all the way down to the smallest corner in the ghettos of Baltimore."

Crowds gathered in Baltimore neighborhoods for a glimpse of the train that carried Kennedy's body to Washington and burial in Arlington national Cemetery.

As the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, Townsend has clear memories of her father, including accompanying him to Senate hearings when she was a young child.

When her uncle was assassinated, Kathleen was 12. Shortly after, her father wrote her a letter she has framed and hung in her front hall. It said:

"As the eldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a special responsibility to Joe and John and to all the grandchildren and the country. Be kind to others and serve our country. Love, Daddy."

"What's interesting and really amazing about that letter is the lack of bitterness and anger and resentment," she said. "What is more compelling about that letter, even more so than 'work for your country' is 'move forward.' Don't choose anger. It is a very strong message."

In recent speeches, Townsend vividly recalls the last time she saw her father, during a visit to her Vermont high school in February 1968. They went skiing. They discussed her latest assignments. He also addressed students about the war and talked about conditions on Indian reservations. His message: get involved.

After he was killed, she spent a summer on a Navajo reservation tutoring in English and building a science center out of handmade adobe bricks.

Now a married mother of four daughters, Townsend lives in Baltimore County. She teaches at Georgetown University, serves on various boards and remains fixed on her father's belief in politics as the highest of callings.

"What I was most struck with was his notion of democracy," she said.

"His notion that government is not something that does things to you, but for you. He had this wonderful heart, but what he understood is if you are going to have real change, you need to change the laws, you need to change politics."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Find a story and multimedia presentation about a photographer who covered Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign at baltimoresun.com/eppridge

ROBERT F. KENNEDY

Robert F. Kennedy

Born: Nov. 25, 1925

Died: June 6, 1968

Family: Brother of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. His 11 children with wife, Ethel, include Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's first female lieutenant governor.

Experience: Managed his brother's 1960 presidential campaign; served as U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York.

Presidential campaign: Announced candidacy for Democratic nomination in 1968, campaigning on an end to poverty, racial and ethnic divisions, and the Vietnam War. Won a string of primaries culminating with the California primary on June 4, 1968. Was shot by Sirhan Sirhan after a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Burial site: Arlington Cemetery, near grave site of President Kennedy

In his words: "Some men see things as they are and ask 'Why?' I dream things that never were and ask 'Why not?'"

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