The Assassination of Robert F Kennedy

Bobby Kennedy had been building momentum on the campaign trail when, shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, he was shot three times at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died 26 hours later, only 42 years old, leaving the nation in shock and reminded of the tragedy of his brother’s death in 1963.

It had been a traumatic year. The anti-Vietnam War movement was peaking, and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only a few months earlier in April, sparking riots across the country. Kennedy had put off his decision about running for the presidency as he struggled to weigh up how a defeat might affect his candidacy for the presidency in 1972 (when Johnson’s second term would end) – but when Johnson surprisingly lost to Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, Kennedy entered the race for the president four days later.


Kennedy was the younger brother of JFK and the seventh (of nine) children of Joseph Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He attended Milton Academy and, after wartime service in the Navy, attended Harvard University where he majored in government in 1948. His father, Joseph, was intensely ambitious for himself and his children and Bobby made his political debut in 1952 as manager of his older brother John’s successful campaign for the US Senate.


During the height of the Red Scare in 1953, he served on the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations under Senator Joseph McCarthy but resigned after six months, uncomfortable with McCarthy’s tactics. In 1960, he managed John’s presidential campaign and, after winning the election, JFK appointed Bobby to the role of Attorney General where he became known for his crack down on organized crime and for his increasing determination to help African Americans during the civil rights movement.

In 1962, he sent US Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order that allowed the first African American student, James Meredith, to study at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”). Riots erupted leaving two men dead, but Meredith enrolled the following day, in a crucial step towards ending segregation in universities. Bobby then helped his brother in proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed eight months after John’s death.

Bobby resigned as Attorney General after John’s death and then ran successfully for the Senate seat of New York. He continued with his commitment to help the underprivileged and the poor and established the Beford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities for those in depressed areas in Brooklyn, and he visited areas of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and migrant workers’ camps to raise the public’s consciousness of the poverty that existed within the country.


He also traveled abroad to Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa to advance his message of human rights. He told students in Cape Town that “each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”


He became increasingly concerned with the war in the Vietnam and publicly broke with the Johnson administration in 1966, urging him to stop the bombing and press for negotiations. He took responsibility for his role in the Kennedy administration’s policy in Southeast Asia and declared that the war could not be won militarily, proposing a three-point plan to bring it to an end.


Kennedy was facing challenges for the Democratic nomination from Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey but quickly emerged as a serious contender as he won critical primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. Focus turned towards California and Kennedy received news that he had won (with 46% of the vote) in the early morning hours of June 5.


He left his 5th floor suite and went to the Embassy Ballroom to make a speech to his 1,800 supporters, concluding it with the words “let’s go to Chicago and win there!” and he had planned to go into the crowd to shake people’s hands. But, at the last minute, a change of plan meant that he had to give a press conference and he exited the ballroom through the kitchen.


As he shook hands with various kitchen workers, a man approached him with a rolled-up campaign poster and, when he was only one foot away, pulled out a .22 revolver from within it and shot Kennedy three times. Two athletes who were accompanying Kennedy, Rafar Johnson and Roosevelt Grier, wrestled the shooter to the ground and disarmed him, but only after five bystanders had been injured. Kennedy was rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital but there was nothing they could do and he died the next day, leaving behind a wife who was pregnant with their 11th child.


The man who had shot him was Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who took issue with Bobby Kennedy’s support of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. He was tried and sentenced to death in 1969, but California abolished the death penalty shortly afterwards and Sirhan remains incarcerated to this day.

These words laid the foundations for American ideals and values and continue to reverberate today. It has been instrumental in shaping the ongoing struggle for civil rights, gender equality, and the protection of individual liberties and is a unifying symbol that fosters a sense of national unity and pride among Americans. In 1870, Congress declared July 4 as a federal holiday, and the day became an occasion for family gatherings, picnics, and barbecues.

Kennedy’s funeral was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and his body was taken to Washington DC by train, with thousands lining up along the railway to pay their respects. He was laid to rest next to his brother in Arlington Cemetery.


The Ambassador Hotel was demolished in 2006. It is now a complex of public schools called the Robert F Kennedy Community Schools and there are murals of him throughout the campus and in the hallways. Hubert Humphrey ended up running against Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1968, but lost. Who knows what might have happened had it been Bobby Kennedy instead.


Scott Harrison, “From the Archives: Boris Yaro Covers the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2018,
“James Meredith | Biography & Facts | Britannica,” April 24, 2023, “Robert F. Kennedy | JFK
Library,” accessed June 5, 2023, Kennedy Police Tape

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