“In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.”
So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in 1884, remembering the powerful experience of going to war at the age of 20, and fighting in the first Battle of Bull Run, the beginning of the Civil War.
For the youth of 1968, the very real peril of war was not in the hills of northern Virginia, but far away in the rice paddies of Vietnam, where America’s involvement in a civil war was costly, in terms of lives as well as national confidence.
But for those of us who were about to graduate high school in the spring of 1968, our hearts were also touched by fire, by the words of a courageous aspirant for the presidency, whose call to make the world a better place would only be stilled by a gunman’s bullet, an event that occurred 45 years ago in Los Angeles. Among many of us, that voice has remained an inspiration ever since.
Robert F. Kennedy was just 42, and he sought to grab the standard dropped by his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. Robert Kennedy, or Bobby as we all called him with affection and respect, entered the 1968 race on St. Patrick’s Day, after another Democrat, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, had begun the challenge to the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Johnson, like King Lear, had achieved a remarkable legacy in the five years since JFK’s death, but his dogged determination to hold the line on Communism in Southeast Asia did much to undermine his achievements in the fields of civil rights, urban development and eradication of poverty. On March 31, a ravaged and dispirited LBJ gave up, announcing that he wouldn’t run for re-election, and left the race to McCarthy, Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
That spring I was fortunate enough to get a volunteer job in the Kennedy campaign during the Indiana Primary. I helped man the phone bank in Evansville, a blue-collar Democratic town where any one of the three candidates—Kennedy, McCarthy or the favorite sun, Gov. Roger Branigan—were thought to have a shot at winning. My job was to call registered Democrats and not only urge them to go to vote, but also to attend a big Kennedy rally and at Roberts Memorial Auditorium (the same place where I would sadly march a few weeks later with my high school class on graduation night, the evening after RFK’s shooting in Los Angeles).
One April night I stood with other volunteers and waited for the candidate to shake our hands; it was one of the most memorable of my life. What I remember most was how vivid he was: his long, tousled red hair, his bright white (and toothy) smile, his light blue shirt and his necktie loosened. This was no photo in a magazine or a flicker on TV. As a band played Woody Guthrie’s ballad “This Land Is Your Land,” an audience of many thousands stood and cheered as RFK walked into the auditorium.
Like other volunteers that night, I received a tie bar (men still wore ties, almost everywhere, in the spring of 1968, although that was about to change) with a replica of JFK’s PT-109, the World War II patrol boat whose crew had been miraculously rescued after being torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer. I still wear that token with a great sense of pride, and sadness.
Of course, from my perspective that spring was anything but a sad time, at least at first. The year seemed utterly fresh, as if anything could happen. Fashions were hot and “mod,” and the spirit was personified by Goldie Hawn’s wild dances on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In,” which was a brand new TV series in 1968. At the movies, Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” was adding new layers to the meaning of comedy, sex and cynicism. Off-screen, the unlikely new star of the film, Dustin Hoffman, was campaigning in New Hampshire and Wisconsin for Senator McCarthy.
But things went terribly wrong in that spring of change. In the realm of civil rights, which had advanced so far since the passage of the landmark acts of 1964 and 1965, white backlash was finding a champion in the rancid voice of a segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace. On April 4, in Memphis, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s long journey reached its climax. The night before, Dr. King spoke unforgettably what turned out to be his farewell address: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Less than twenty-four hours later, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room by a white gunman. The association between the Kennedys and King had always been strong, and the impact on Bobby of King’s death was shattering. It was the final blow in his short career that altered him, and in a few brief weeks, much of the nation.
RFK was in Indianapolis on that night, April 4, and it was his sad duty to break the news to a large crowd of mostly African-American citizens that Dr. King had been martyred. Video cameras were finally portable, so many of the events of 1968 are vividly preserved, and one of them was that speech. Kennedy’s brilliant capacity to speak and his huge, empathetic heart, all came together to articulate a new path for the nation, regardless of race, class, age, educational level or gender. For the next two months, he repeated this clarion call as he barnstormed the nation.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within out country, whether they be white or black.” (Watch it for yourself here.)
That night, riots born in desperation broke out in Washington’s black neighborhoods, and the unrest was repeated across the nation. For the first time since the Civil War, armed soldiers stood on the Capitol steps. In the midst of this turmoil, only one man seemed to be able to speak to all of the divided people of the nation—Robert F. Kennedy.
A few weeks later, Kennedy won the Indiana primary, and he won an even bigger mandate June 5 in California. After claiming victory, and rallying his troops to move “on to Chicago” to win the nomination, he was gunned down in a hotel kitchen by a 24-year-old Palestinian whose motives have never been determined. In 2013, Sirhan Sirhan lives on in a California prison, now almost 70. And the thousands of young people like me who followed Bobby Kennedy, and Gene McCarthy, in that long-ago spring are approaching old age in a time when the healing, unifying words both men articulated have been replaced by cynical, cowardly or feckless politicians who cannot even pass a federal budget.
And yet, some of us remember. And we still pause and recall the challenge Robert Kennedy made to us so long ago: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
Yes, I still respond. Why not?
Keith Runyon is a veteran Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He’ll discuss this essay with WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian during Here & Now at 1 p.m.