1968 was a relentlessly violent year in the modern American era. Fifty years ago, U.S. households were greeted by broadcasts of a Vietnam War far messier and grislier than the one predicted by the White House, soon to be followed by coverage of the mass procession in Atlanta for slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. The murder of King, a man who for many was the face of the Civil Rights movement, would precipitate an ugly descent into hopelessness for many of the Americans he stood up for.  

But, for all of the seemingly limitless rage that accompanied news of King’s assassination in April of that year — a tragedy that is aptly covered in general discourse and historical curriculum — its sequel would amplify America’s anguish by an unfathomable magnitude. That being, of course, the senseless assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — heir to the Kennedy legacy, U.S. presidential hopeful and the face of this country’s unrealized potential — two months after King’s that would truly epitomize the inexorable violence of that year.  

While King, as a man of color, led his campaign against inequality from the platform of the disadvantaged, Kennedy’s promise to conquer those same ills was instead directed from a position of socially elevated class and race. Bolstered by a pedigree and a public service record so notable as to even potentially attain the country’s highest office, Kennedy and the future he promised made the whole of those two assassinations that much greater than the sum of its parts. How could such a nation as America, finally making progress in redressing some of its many wrongs, allow one of its icons to be taken away so prematurely? More telling, what did the silencing of a figure so capable in the art of leadership as Kennedy foretell for our own America today?

Capitalizing on a surge of popular disapproval of America’s escalating war in Vietnam, especially among young people, then-Senator Kennedy’s entry into the 1968 presidential race came relatively late. The election, in many ways a referendum on the Vietnam War — typified by growing cries of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”— saw incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson break long-standing precedent by declining to run for a second term, leaving room for Kennedy to make his bid.  

Kennedy’s subsequent and brief journey, climaxing with his victory in the California Democratic primary, reflected his remarkable ability to transcend seemingly impassable barriers of class and race at a time of great inequality and growing awareness of that inequality. Born into expectations of political greatness, he was a blue-blooded scion of one of New England’s wealthiest and most powerful families, yet commanded the respect and ear of America’s impoverished and minority communities. He was both a dedicated “Cold Warrior” who, as attorney general, ordered wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. for his aide’s suspected communist ties, as well as a dedicated liberal who embraced growing opposition to the Vietnam War even as it embroiled him in more controversy

Perhaps more than anything else he did or anyone else he touched, what speaks most to Kennedy’s political prowess was the dark night in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, the night King was shot dead in Memphis. Against the advice of his advisers and his wife, Kennedy took it upon himself to inform those in the poor, mostly Black neighborhoods around him of the heartbreaking news. The rest of the country would descend into a frenzy of destruction and chaos following news of King’s assassination, as Black Americans struggled to cope with how the other America could exact upon them so much cruelty in one blow.   

Yet Black people in Indianapolis, cautioned by Kennedy against participating in the cycle of bloodshed and counterproductive polarization, and moved by his remarks about his brother’s assassination five years prior, remained at peace. For a white politician in 1968 to command that kind of empathy and persuasion of a crowd like the one gathered that night remains nothing short of remarkable. Indeed, this was the same year that saw vocal segregationist George Wallace win over an eighth of American votes for president. As former civil rights activist and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., remarked, “(Kennedy) was probably the only white politician who could walk the streets of Atlanta, into the heart of the African American community, without any booing, without anyone saying anything bad about him.”  

Unfortunately, a half-century later, it seems that a successor to this impressive legacy remains absent. While it comes as a relief that political party associations are stronger than class and race associations, perhaps reflecting a progression in social attitudes since the 1960s, this comes at the price of growing divides between Americans along the lines of party allegiance. What we see is no longer Kennedy’s pragmatic approach to politics: an appeal to Americans of different backgrounds that their interests can be shared, buffered by demonstrated commitments to equal justice and listening. Instead, especially in recent years, we have seen repeated alienation of entire swaths of Americans by prominent politicians and the president alike, exacerbating in-group sentiments against the out-group with utter disregard for the resentment that this strategy fosters.  

In this way, the assassination of Kennedy in the summer of 1968 was more than just the end of a campaign or even the end of a movement. It marked the fall of a savior — someone who, while neither poor nor Black nor eligible for the draft, made it his mission to unite these struggles under a single banner that he would carry. With regard to present-day America, where most opinionated adults believe the other side possesses not only a different set of values but also a truly different vision for what America ought to look like, it seems our politicians have failed us in this mission.

Sadly, we as Americans have largely accepted this failure as fate, as indicated by our plummeting trust in the government over the last 50 years. If we hope to reverse this discouraging trend, we must first demand more from politicians whose promises forgo messages of inclusion and fail to emphasize common goals. It is the least we can do in a political landscape so far removed from the ideal set forth by Kennedy’s run for president. That campaign, and the possibilities for America it represented, has memorialized the tragic murder of Kennedy as one of 1968’s most consequential and sobering moments. Fifty years later, his legacy will only survive if we demand that it does.

Ethan Kessler can be reached at ethankes@umich.edu.

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