June 6th marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Younger brother to JFK, Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, and U.S. Senator from New York from 1965 to his death, RFK was shot after winning the California Democratic Primary.
The Los Angeles Times reported on the results of the Tuesday, June 4th primary in their Wednesday, June 5th edition:
“A late surge of votes from Mexican-American and Negro precincts–particularly in Los Angeles County–made Sen. Robert F. Kennedy the winner in California’s Democratic Presidential primary battle Tuesday.” 1
They went to press before being able to report he had been shot after giving a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel, shortly after midnight.
He died at 1:44 a.m. on June 6th. The last edition of that paper from L.A. reported in an article titled “Disbelief, Sorrow Sweep Negro, Latin Areas at News of Tragedy”:
“Stunned disbelief and sorrow swept across the Mexican-American barrios and through the Negro neighborhoods of South Los Angeles Wednesday as hundreds of thousands tried to grasp the enormity of the tragedy that befell Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
To many, he was the only presidential candidate who fully sensed their problems and their frustrations.” 2
Indeed, today’s remembrance is a significant one in Chicano/Latino history. RFK was popular within Latino communities, and for good reason. He consistently voiced support for the issues and daily struggles of Latinos in the United States.
He was a public and fervent supporter of the farm worker’s struggle, led by Cesar Chavez. Though a sharp minority of the Latino population in the U.S. of the 1960s worked in the agricultural sector, most could identify with this union struggle of the poorest and most oppressed of our population. RFK’s support for this cause endeared him to Latinos because it spoke volumes about his capacity for empathy and humanism. That such a powerful figure in U.S. society recognized “our” struggle spoke volumes to a generation who knew the scourge of racial oppression.
Likewise, RFK won the loyal support of radical and reformist Chicana and Chicano activists when he publicly supported the young students who started the Chicano Movement by walking out of their East L.A. classes in March of 1968. Already an advocate for minority rights in the face of local police oppression, RFK’s legitimization of these students’ efforts helped win them the support of many in Los Angeles, an important fact when 13 of the walkout leaders were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy. His support played a small role in eventually getting the “East L.A. 13” released from jail (coincidentally, on June 6th), as well as securing them an acquittal on all charges.
As a historian, I am utterly fascinated with the political history of the United States. But, I assure you, I’m no sentimentalist when it comes to the same. I know better than to put too much faith in a politician to represent the ideals I hold dear. Regrettably, that is not the game of politics. But RFK would have been a real difference to that long history of disappointment with power. In his lifetime, he had already begun to model a potential challenge to that, though not without contradiction.
So take pause to remember this day in Chicano/Latino History.
1. Richard Bergrolz, “Kennedy Wins Race’ Rafferty Apparent Victor Over Kuchel,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1968, 1.
2. “Ray Rogers and Jack Jones, “Disbelief, Sorrow Sweep Negro, Latin Areas at News of Tragedy,” Los Angeles Times (“Extra” edition), June 6, 1968, C1.