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RFK Assassination: Fifty Years Ago

I was only three years old when President John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963 [graphic YouTube link]. I was at my grandmother's house that day; she had fallen, and my mother took me in her arms and ran to the house to help out. While there, "As the World Turns" was on TV, and Walter Cronkite had interrupted the broadcast with a series of special reports about the JFK shooting in Dealy Plaza. For days thereafter, all the TV networks devoted 24-hours of coverage leading up to the funeral and burial at Arlington Cemetery. Among the shocking events that unfolded before my young eyes was to witness live, on television, the shooting of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jr., by Jack Ruby [graphic YouTube link].

This was my introduction to the 1960s. Those who speak much today about how polarized our society is tend to suffer from a case of historical amnesia. I don't think I ever lived through a more turbulent period than that which lasted from 1963 through the mid-1970s.

By the time I was 8, I had already seen a President shot, followed by years of nightly news coverage of civil rights and antiwar protests, both violent and nonviolent, along with scenes of carnage coming from Southeast Asia and thousands of body bags of U.S. soldiers returning to American soil each week. Within a few years, there were revelations of government lies about that war coming to light from the "Pentagon Papers," followed by all the lies that could be summed up in one word: "Watergate." Trust in government institutions was at an all-time low. Sound familiar?

On April 4, 1968, I felt bewildered by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched as the special reports came in on television, around the time of the evening news, with regard to King's assassination [YouTube link]. That night, Robert F. Kennedy gave a famous speech about the assassination in Indianapolis, Indiana [YouTube link], as cities across the United States were lit up with riots and violence. I returned to my neighborhood school the next day; it was P.S. 215, and our principal's name was Morris H. Weiss, and we were all encouraged to talk about the events of the previous day. (By the time I had graduated from that school, it had been renamed the Morris H. Weiss School!) But I remember all-too-well, the sadness that I saw in the eyes of one of my classmates. Her name was Wanda and she was a young, bright, African American girl. She said to me: "One of your kind of people shot one of my kind of people." And I said to her: "That white guy was a bad man. Not all white people are bad. There are good and bad in every group." And she seemed to relax after I had said that. What I said wasn't as profound as the speech RFK had given, but it seemed to have had a similar effect.

Little did I know that almost two months later, to the day, Robert F. Kennedy would fall to another assassin's bullets. It was June 5, 1968, around 3:30 a.m., fifty years ago today, when the phone rang. Usually, when a phone would ring at that hour in our home, it could only be bad news. It was my Aunt Georgia, who was a late night TV watcher, back in the days when Johnny Carson was hosting "The Tonight Show" on WNBC and WCBS was showing movie after movie with something it dubbed "The Late Show" and "The Late Late Show," and so on. She told us to turn on the TV: "Robert Kennedy was shot!" [graphic YouTube link].

We turned on our black-and-white television, and what we saw was pure pandemonium [YouTube link], but I remember seeing photos of RFK laying in a pool of blood. I don't recall going to school after daylight arrived, and the following day, June 6th, was Brooklyn-Queens Day, when schools in Brooklyn and Queens were closed. And it was in the early morning hours of that day, nearly 26 hours after being mortally wounded, that Robert F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.

We watched the RFK funeral, which took place at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on June 8th, and I remember well the eulogy given by another Kennedy brother, Ted, as he spoke through his tears [YouTube link]. Ted quoted RFK's words, which were actually a paraphrase from a work of George Bernard Shaw. It is a quote etched on the side of a building in downtown Brooklyn, once belonging to the Brooklyn Paramount, taken over in 1954 by Long Island University: "Some men see things as they are, and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'".

It was an inspiring quote to me at the time. And I suspect that with all the intense news coverage that I watched as a child, my interest in history and politics took root. It was not all doom and gloom, because I was also a kid enthralled with the space program, and the images of seeing Neil Armstrong taking his first steps upon the moon on July 20, 1969 [YouTube link], were heroic enough to make me truly realize that the things that never were, could be.

And so I mark today's fiftieth anniversary of RFK's assassination. It makes no difference if you were a fan or an opponent of his politics or the politics of other public figures who were shot down in the 1960s. I mark this date because, like other moments from that difficult time period, it was one of the defining events that shaped my own political consciousness and that of a generation to come.