Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Los Angeles to celebrate winning the California primary election for the presidency of the United States, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late president John F. Kennedy, was exiting through a kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel when he was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan.

Summary of Event

On Tuesday night, June 4, 1968, hundreds of Robert F. Kennedy’s supporters and campaign workers gathered in the main ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel near downtown Los Angeles awaiting the outcome of the presidential primary election held in California that day. The California primary was the sixth such election Kennedy had entered in his bid for the presidency. He had won all but one primary election, and winning in California, with its large number of electoral votes, was crucial to a successful run for the nation’s highest office. Assassinations and attempts;Robert F. Kennedy[Kennedy, Robert] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968 [kw]Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated (June 5, 1968) [kw]Kennedy Is Assassinated, Robert F. (June 5, 1968) [kw]Assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy Is (June 5, 1968) Assassinations and attempts;Robert F. Kennedy[Kennedy, Robert] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968 [g]North America;June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated[09810] [g]United States;June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated[09810] [c]Crime and scandal;June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated[09810] [c]Government and politics;June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated[09810] Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;assassination Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;1968 presidential elections Sirhan, Sirhan Bishara Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Chávez, César Kennedy, Jacqueline Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;1968 presidential elections Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;1968 presidential elections

The air bristled with excitement as the returns began to trickle in. Although Kennedy’s opponent, Eugene McCarthy McCarthy, Eugene , was winning two out of every three votes cast by affluent white Democrats, Kennedy, long a champion of minority rights and the enforcement of civil rights legislation, was winning the African American vote quite handily. He was taking seven out of every eight votes cast by Latino voters as well.

Kennedy’s supporters remembered the courageous actions he had taken during his term as U.S. attorney general during the presidency of his brother, John F. Kennedy. Robert had stood against southern racists who resisted government-mandated school integration and who tried to suppress members of racial minorities. They remembered his initiatives to ensure the voter registration of blacks throughout the South. Kennedy’s victory was assured when César Chávez, the charismatic Mexican American activist who headed the United Farm Workers’ Union, gave his unqualified support to the candidate.

Election results that evening soon indicated that Kennedy had won California, defeating McCarthy by five percentage points. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, appeared on the podium. Shortly after midnight on June 5, Kennedy addressed his supporters briefly, vowing to unite a divided society and paying special homage to Chávez for his support. Chávez had delivered not only the votes of farmworkers but also those of Latinos in California’s large cities as well.

Although Kennedy was the scion of a wealthy, well-known East Coast family, he had a magical gift of reaching out to the downtrodden and oppressed with whom, on the surface, he had little in common except for their shared basic humanity. His sincerity regarding the enforcement of civil rights laws and the protection of the poor had, without a doubt, been validated during his term as attorney general. When he decided to enter the 1968 presidential race, Kennedy, with his rumpled hair, engaging eyes, and boyish good looks, worked more on instinct than on any carefully crafted political design.

Exhausted after his long and physically demanding campaign in California, Kennedy left the podium and the ballroom. He and Ethel exited the ballroom through an adjacent kitchen, where he circulated among the cooks and food servers, shaking their hands and talking with them. Suddenly, three shots rang out, and Kennedy lay crumpled on the concrete floor in a pool of his own blood. Still conscious, he asked whether everyone was safe, then lapsed into unconsciousness. One of the bullets had shattered his brain. Although he lingered in a coma for twenty-five more hours, his heart finally failed. He died on June 6.

Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian nationalist who hated Kennedy for his support of Israel, was tackled and detained seconds after the shooting. Sirhan was tried and found guilty in April, 1969, of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. His sentence was overturned in 1970, however, and reduced to life imprisonment when the state of California abolished its death penalty.

It is ironic that Kennedy entered the 1968 presidential race. Lyndon B. Johnson was president and presumably would run for a second term, although the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam was weighing heavily on him. After Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term, the Democratic power brokers essentially cast their lot with vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, not with Kennedy. Some of the people closest to Kennedy urged him not to run. His brother, Senator Ted Kennedy Kennedy, Ted , thought that the 1968 run was premature. He advised his brother to wait until 1972, so he would have more time to establish his base and to devote to his large family, which included not only his own children but also John and Caroline Kennedy, the son and daughter of his brother John. Robert had become a surrogate father to John’s children after John’s assassination on November 22, 1963.

Jacqueline Kennedy, his sister-in-law, tried vigorously to dissuade Robert from running, reminding him that people who hated the Kennedys wanted to kill him just as they had killed her husband. Kennedy, however, had a strong sense of duty and was fatalistic about the risks he assumed by making a presidential run. He acknowledged the possibility that attempts would be made on his life and that it was all but impossible to guard a candidate who, if he was to reach his constituency, had to work the crowds. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, 1968, heightened Kennedy’s awareness of the dangers facing him. Nevertheless, his strong sense of duty made it impossible for him to not seek the presidency in 1968.

Significance

The impact of an assassination is always the effect of potential unfulfilled. It is impossible to predict the course the nation might have taken had Robert Kennedy become the president of the United States following the 1968 election. A country demoralized by the war in Vietnam and by the social unrest taking place throughout much of the country in the late 1960’s would elect as president Richard M. Nixon.

Robert Kennedy’s assassination certainly dispelled the possibility that any Kennedy of his generation would serve as president. His brother Joseph, who was being groomed for a presidential run by the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., was killed in World War II. John was next in line to run for the presidency. His father had mapped his future to a large extent by helping him become a member of the Senate and win the presidency in 1960.

The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, along with that of Martin Luther King, Jr., weighed heavily on the American psyche: Three progressive giants of the age had been cut down in their prime. A period of forward-looking hope was suddenly to dissolve into turmoil and pessimism in the face of an escalating Vietnam War. Perhaps no event other than the Watergate affair, five years after Robert’s assassination, would so completely demarcate the end of American faith in government.

Politics remained in the family however, as two of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s offspring have been elected to public office. Their daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Their son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives from 1987 until 1999. John and Robert’s brother Ted served in the U.S. Senate for more than four decades as a liberal Democrat, and he has been named one of the ten most significant senators of the twentieth century. Assassinations and attempts;Robert F. Kennedy[Kennedy, Robert] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heymann, C. David. RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy. New York: Dutton, 1998. An intimate look into the dynamics of the Kennedy family and an assessment of the effects of Robert’s assassination on the remaining family members.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaiser, Robert Blair.“R. F. K. Must Die!” A History of the Robert Kennedy Assassination and Its Aftermath. New York: Dutton, 1970. At more than six hundred pages, one of the best and most comprehensive analyses of Sirhan’s motives in assassinating Kennedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klaber, William, and Philip H. Melanson. Shadow Play: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, the Trial of Sirhan Sirhan, and the Failure of American Justice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A controversial work that questions the evidence used to convict Sirhan of Kennedy’s killing and casts doubt on the investigations and conclusions of the case. A detailed work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maier, Thomas. The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings. New York: Basic Books, 2003. One of the most extensive overviews of the Kennedy family, spanning four generations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. A thorough assessment of Kennedy’s impact on American culture and politics with a full account of his assassination and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. An objective view of Kennedy’s life and politics observed from the vantage point of a three-decade separation from his death.

Kennedy Is Elected President

President Kennedy Is Assassinated

Johnson Is Elected President

Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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