Thursday, June 05, 2008

Today Is 40th Anniversary Of RFK Assassination

Forty years ago tonight, one of the most dreadful events in the history of Los Angeles, occurred -- the assassination at the Ambassador Hotel of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, just moments after he was able to claim victory in California's 1968 Democratic presidential primary.

It was Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad who perhaps best summed up the meaning of the murder of Kennedy by a Palestinian terrorist, Sirhan Sirhan. He had a cartoon shortly thereafter which showed a scales. On one side of it was one bullet; on the other, 1.4 million California ballots for Kennedy, and the ballots were all flying away, cast to the winds.

The voters had been disenfranchised, and history changed.

It is striking today, 40 years later, that this morning's newspapers have another Kennedy in the news -- the charismatic niece of Robert Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, named yesterday by Sen. Barack Obama as one of three persons given the mission of researching who should be his vice presidential running mate. Caroline is, of course, the only surviving child of another assassinated American leader, President John F. Kennedy.

Caroline Kennedy's emerging role in the Obama campaign -- her endorsement and Op Ed Page piece in the New York Times just after the South Carolina primary was an important event in development of the Obama candidacy, along with that of her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy -- is a poignant sign of the still monumental Kennedy family influence over American life and politics.

Also, of course, this week has seen Obama, the mixed-race son of a black Kenyan immigrant and a white Kansan, clinch the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

It is not a stretch to say that Robert Kennedy, who had emerged in his life as an heroic champion of civil rights, and particularly of the black and brown citizens of America, would have been in awe of this moment.

Forty years ago tonight, a political writer for the L.A. Times, I was covering Sen. Eugene McCarthy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel at the moment Kennedy was shot. McCarthy, who received 42% of California's Democratic vote that day, compared to 46% for Kennedy, had no security that evening. It was E.W. (Ned) Kenworthy and I who called the Beverly Hills Police Department to suggest that it send over policemen to guard McCarthy. We feared a conspiracy might be afoot to slay the peace candidates in the 1968 campaign.

Of course, just two months before, the greatest champion of civil rights in America after Lincoln, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis by James Earl Ray, a white fanatic.

Just the night before he was shot, Dr. King, in a speech that will always be remembered, told an audience in Memphis that that night he could say that, he might "not get there with you, but I can tell you tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."

The Obama candidacy, as a number of the nation's most eminent historians were quoted as telling the Washington Post today, is an historic affirmation of that King prophecy.

Forty years is, by some standards, a long time. Many of us who were young then are now old. Yet, at the same time, the events of the night of June 5-6, 1968, as of Nov. 22, 1963 and April 4, 1968, have an immediacy. They do not seem to have taken place that long ago. I remember them as if they had taken place yesterday. Many others will too.

American life is unfolding, a constant search to make a "more perfect Union." Lincoln declared, "Malice toward none, Charity for all, Firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."

It is those sentiments that bestowed glory on the lives of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and, perhaps now Barack Obama. Let's hope Obama lives to fulfill them.

But in the meantime, cast our eyes backwards, and remember the gallant figures who were so unjustly gunned down by the haters who would like to destroy America and its ideals.

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