The Kennedy family will always be remembered for giving the American people statesmen who may have been incredibly flawed, but whose contributions to their country were incredible nonetheless. Decades after he was assassinated in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy is still seen as a symbol of American Exceptionalism, a man who dared Americans to put man on the moon and challenged them to render service to their country. Senator Edward “Teddy” M. Kennedy became the lion of the United States Senate, tirelessly advocating for universal healthcare and readily setting aside partisanship to work with peers like Senator John McCain. But Americans tend to forget the profound impact that Senator Bobby Kennedy had on their country.
They forget the man who engineered his brother’s election to the presidency in 1960, who evolved as an attorney general into an indefatigable proponent of civil rights, and a presidential candidate who gave a voice to communities that had never felt represented by their elected officials. Kennedy’s impromptu speech to a minority majority crowd of supporters in Indianapolis on the night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death demonstrates how even a white man from a privileged background can effectively advocate for peace and equality.
Like most politicians, Bobby Kennedy was no perfect individual and the story of his relationship with race is a story of evolution. Legendary author and civil rights activist James Baldwin was critical of Kennedy’s early performance as his brother’s attorney general. Baldwin, who met with Kennedy at his apartment in New York City believed that the attorney general, while well-intentioned, could not fathom what life was truly like for African Americans. Kennedy had even discouraged the Freedom Riders from demonstrating in the summer of 1961, though he eventually ordered the desegregation of bus terminals in response to public pressure. But as he became better acquainted with the Civil Rights Movement, his tepid support for civil rights activists like Dr. King transformed into impassioned advocacy for social justice, especially in the wake of his brother’s assassination.
In particular, Kennedy became close with a young civil rights advocate named John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders. Lewis, who would later be elected to the United States House of Representatives and become one of the most prominent statesmen of the past century, recalled his first meeting with Kennedy in 1963 when interviewed for a Netflix documentary. Congressman Lewis recalled, “When I first met Robert Kennedy in’63, he said to me, he said: ‘John, I now understand the young people. The students have educated me.’ And we went on to say, ‘We’re going to bring justice to this country.’” It turns out that among Lewis’ many accomplishments, one was helping Kennedy empathize with the plight of minorities in America. Yet even that was not the end of Lewis’ impact on Kennedy.
When Kennedy announced that he was running for president on March 16, 1968, the United States was in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years in its history. Though many Americans rightfully remember the Vietnam War and the numerous antiwar protestors, they seldom recall that neither the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had achieved the racial equity for which Dr. King fought.
When looking at the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries, it is easy to see why President Lyndon B. Johnson had become such an unpopular figure as a result of the Vietnam War. However, it was an idealistic senator from Minnesota named Eugene McCarthy who first challenged Johnson and nearly beat the president in the New Hampshire primary that year. After flying to California to meet with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (during the latter’s heroic hunger strike), Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, echoing many of McCarthy’s calls for peace, but making a concentrated effort to amplify the voices of American minorities.
Kennedy’s campaign changed American history by depending almost entirely on a base of support composed of African Americans, Latinos, and indigenous peoples. One might assume that the charismatic Kennedy would be able to harness the support of the predominantly Caucasian college students who powered the prominent antiwar movement in the late 60s. However, these white college activists reviled Kennedy, believing him to be a callous opportunist whose antiwar rhetoric was not sufficient to secure their votes. In fact, it was minority Americans who powered the grassroots movement that was Kennedy’s late entry into the primaries.
Once again, it was Lewis who became one of Kennedy’s most trusted advisers and who educated the candidate on issues of racial injustice. While white college students dismissed Kennedy, civil rights activists like Lewis saw Kennedy as a genuine champion of racial and socioeconomic equality. Whereas McCarthy would campaign on college campuses and amongst the traditional Caucasian primary voters, Kennedy campaigned everywhere from the inner cities to reservations to the labor camps where migrant workers toiled. Lewis and Huerta became much more than surrogates to minority communities for the Kennedy campaign, actively shaping his platform and finding ways to bring his message to voters who had never been courted by politicians before. Both would play pivotal roles in delivering Kennedy’s victory in California on the day of his eventual assassination, but it was Lewis who ushered Kennedy into the inner city of Indianapolis, Indiana to create a moment that would produce one of the most memorable speeches in American history.
People outside of Indiana tend to think of the Hoosier State as a bland, lily-white part of the Midwest. Indeed, this idea is reinforced by the politicians produced by Indiana in recent years, such as Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Mike Pence. They forget that the cities of Gary (across the Indiana-Illinois border from Chicago) and Indianapolis have been the homes to black Hoosiers for decades. Nevertheless, the prevailing assumption was that Kennedy’s campaign was an exercise in futility in a conservative and predominantly Caucasian state. Lewis, who proved to be as shrewd a strategist as he was a valiant advocate for civil rights, knew that the McCarthy campaign and the majority of political pundits held this assumption. For this reason, Lewis had planned a rally in inner city Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. Neither he nor Kennedy had any idea that that day would also be Dr. King’s last, as the civil rights icon would be murdered in Memphis, Tennessee.
Compared to President Kennedy’s inaugural address or the many speeches delivered by his younger brother in the Senate Chamber, Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis lacks the soaring rhetoric that has become synonymous with the Kennedy name. Then again, Kennedy was not the same type of speaker as his brothers. While President Kennedy radiated the regal aura of the closest thing Americans have had to royalty, Bobby Kennedy cut quite a different figure. Throughout the primaries, Kennedy delivered his speeches on a flatbed truck, allowing Americans from all walks of life to surround him as if he were a religious prophet. Looking back, the enthusiasm that Kennedy generated and his willingness to make himself accessible to his supporters underscored the special bond between the candidate and his base. However, that night in Indianapolis, the usually upbeat Kennedy felt the burden of King’s death weighing down on him. As he stood on the flatbed truck, Kennedy clutched only a sheet of paper with his favorite poem by the Greek writer Aeschylus. His impromptu, five-minute speech would not only provide an early eulogy to one of America’s greatest heroes, but solidify Kennedy’s place in American history.
Kennedy did not mention, nor did he have to, any specific policy proposals in his speech; his improvisation centered solely on what he perceived to be the greatest characteristics of Dr. King: compassion and love. That night, riots had broken out in majority-minority communities across the country. Kennedy knew that there was the potential for violence. He and Lewis had been warned by Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar (who notably desegregated the Indianapolis public school system and worked to free Nelson Mandela after being elected to the United States Senate) that a riot could break out at any point in time. Rather than ignoring the raw emotion coursing through his audience, Kennedy acknowledged that they had every right to be upset by the loss of their leader. Kennedy utilized his trademark empathy to relate the loss of his brother to the pain and hurt that the citizens of Indianapolis were feeling. Kennedy reminded his audience of Dr. King’s tireless work in the pursuit of healing America’s racial divisions. He was not condescending; he did not disparage their great feeling of loss. Rather, Kennedy placed himself in the shoes of the people he earnestly wished to represent. That night, Indianapolis had the only inner city community in America that did not experience any riots.
The impact of Kennedy’s speech should impart a lesson of leadership to today’s politicians. Kennedy assuaged the fears of a city by his genuine empathy rather than his rhetoric. Furthermore, this would not have been possible had it not been for someone like Lewis being treated as a trusted confidante instead of as a token minority. Lewis admitted in the interview that after the speech, he and a few advisers were invited back to Kennedy’s hotel room where they all broke out in tears. Surely this is proof of how highly Bobby Kennedy valued the young John Lewis. Kennedy found success because he amplified the voices of individuals like Lewis and Huerta; because he made his campaign represent something greater than himself. It could have been Kennedy’s speech or Lewis’ strategy, but their campaign beat McCarthy’s 42-27% on May 3, 1968. Admittedly, Kennedy’s straightforward personality and his humble means of campaigning via a flatbed truck must have won the support of white Hoosiers, especially with his impressive margin of victory. But it cannot be emphasized enough how critical black voters were to Kennedy’s triumph.
When Kennedy was assassinated the night he won the California Democratic primary, American minorities were robbed of a public servant who legitimately held their concerns close to his heart. There is no evidence to suggest that Kennedy would have been the eventual nominee. Though he won Nebraska after Indiana, overwhelmingly white Oregon was fruitful ground for the McCarthy campaign and Kennedy experienced a humiliating loss in that state thereafter. Furthermore, the primary system was considered to be even more convoluted (and corrupt) than it is today. Many pundits assumed (correctly) that the Vice President Hubert Humphrey would become the nominee even though he did not participate in a single primary contest. Finally, had Kennedy not been assassinated and had he overcome the formidable challenge of beating the Democratic establishment, he would have faced Richard Nixon in the general election. Nixon, a master at utilizing racial “dog whistles” would have likely used Kennedy as a foil for the nonsensical threat that Caucasian Americans felt the Civil Rights Movement represented. But maybe Kennedy, whose strength was derived from American minorities who had never been given a political voice, could have become the second of his siblings to beat Nixon in an election. Unfortunately, the world will never know what a second Kennedy administration would have looked like, or how the careers of John Lewis and Dolores Huerta would have found different but comparable levels of success. Yet Americans should be grateful for the lessons they can derive from Kennedy, Lewis, and that speech in Indianapolis.
Cormac recently graduated from Arizona State University’s Barrett, Honors College with one major in political science and a second major in civic and economic thought and leadership. In addition to graduating summa cum laude, Cormac received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Medal and the Moeur Award for academic excellence. At the end of the summer, Cormac will move to Chicago to begin his MFA in comedic screenwriting at DePaul University.