June 05, 2015

On the assassination of Bobby Kennedy

Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.
Robert Kennedy in a speech to mayors in May 1964 

I was a young teenager living in southern Saskatchewan in 1968, and on 5 June the radio was on as I got ready for school. It was a Wednesday. All radio stations in Canada on this morning, including the commercial Top 40 stations, carried the same CBC newscast, The World at Eight. Apparently there was a feeling our American neighbours were slipping into anarchy and the broadcasters of the nation felt it important to tell the same story to all Canadians as they woke up.

It was an incredible time to be a teenager in Canada. In 1968 many of us were wrapped up in politics; the politics of our own country, and the politics of the world beyond: Prague Spring, the Cultural Revolution, near-revolution in Paris only the month before, and of course, the violent upheaval we witnessed every night on television news reports from the United States. We had the best of everything: a comfortable lifestyle that allowed us to rebel on weekends, and still come home for mom's cooking every night of the week. 1968 was shaping our lives, but now, yet another hero's death made everything seem ever more fragile and uncertain.

Only weeks before, on 4 April, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee,  and America's cities had been set ablaze. The American War in Viet Nam continued to divide the nation, and an incumbent President had announced he would not seek re-election. The peace candidate, and the one I supported, being a Canadian teenager of course, was Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy had precipitated President Johnson's withdrawal by defeating him in earlier Democratic Party primaries, which opened the door for Kennedy to enter the race.

It was the California Primary that Bobby had won that night in 1968, by a slim margin over Gene McCarthy. The next big primary would be New York, and now we had two candidates claiming to be willing to end the awful war.

My life, even as a teenager, was perfectly fine. My family, though far from being rich, never wanted for much either. My country was great. Canada had just finished its year-long Centennial celebrations five months earlier and my friends and I felt we were on top of the world. Hearing the news on that day in 1968 made me wonder if the United States was indeed spinning out of control. We listened to the news throughout the day in breaks at school and later, after school, we watched the news on CBC and NBC with our parents, of all people.

As the early days of summer continued, the craziness south of the border never abated. A few months after Bobby's assassination, my family took a road trip to Montreal and one night while in an Ottawa motel we watched together as the Chicago City Police rioted during the Democratic National Convention. The convention where Bobby or Gene would have been selected as the party's candidate for president. Instead, amidst the insanity and violence of what was happening in the streets, Hubert Humphrey was chosen, and somehow we knew, as teenagers, that nothing would ever be the same again. How many of our heroes would have to be killed in order to make America safe for the likes of Richard Nixon?

I remember Bobby Kennedy's impromptu speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, and his simple words as he told his disbelieving audience the news of King's death:

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 and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
And I remember his words in a speech given in the United States Senate two years before his death. It was a promise from a member of the increasingly fading Camelot:
A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.
I'm still waiting.                                              

Then again, it's always been up to us.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

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