Robert F. Kennedy: Father of Modern American Liberalism

Today’s post comes from Alyssa Manfredi at the National Archives History Office.

Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was a politician known as the father of modern American liberalism. As President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, he used his position as a high-profile member of the Kennedy family to advocate for the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, into an Irish-American family. He was the eighth child and third son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Dismissed by his father for being the “runt” of the family, he gravitated toward his pious mother and became a devout Catholic.

In 1950, Bobby married his sister Jean’s college roommate, Ethel Skakel. The couple went on to have 11 children together. When asked what the most important decision in his life was, Kennedy’s response was “marrying Ethel.”

Kennedy went to Harvard University to study political science and then attended the University of Virginia School of Law. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951 but resigned a year later to manage his brother John F. Kennedy’s Senate campaign. 

After JFK became President of the United States, he appointed Bobby as his Attorney General, making him, at age 35, one of the youngest cabinet members in American history. He became his brother’s closest adviser and played a prominent role during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. 

A May 24, 1963, meeting with James Baldwin and other civil rights leaders revealed that Kennedy was naive to the extent of racism that existed in the U.S. This was a turning point for Kennedy’s views on civil rights. It also shaped the White House response to desegregation at the University of Alabama, federalizing the National Guard to allow Black students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood to register for classes less than one month after the meeting.

Later that year, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Bobby began to blame himself for his brother’s death due to his aggressive fight against organized crime as Attorney General. He told one of his aides, “I thought they’d get one of us . . . I thought it would be me.”

Soon after his brother’s death, he left the White House and won a U.S. Senate seat in New York. He began to use his position as the late President’s sympathetic brother to his advantage to bring more media attention to issues facing underprivileged people in the United States.

On the Senate Labor Committee, he worked with César Chávez and Dolores Huerta of the Chicano Movement to bring more media attention to the underpaid farm workers in Delano, California.

He visited Native American reservations in North Dakota and was so enraged with the poor conditions of that he led a Senate’s Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, calling the federal government’s disregard for the impoverished native people a “national disgrace.”

He met with Pope Paul VI and implored him to speak out against apartheid in South Africa. He spoke out against American involvement in the war in Vietnam, which was reaching its peak in 1968. Only three years after his meeting with Baldwin, he became one of the strongest advocates for civil rights in the country, allying himself with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., even breaking the news of King’s death in Indianapolis. You can listen to the audio recording of his announcement courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library.

In the middle of his senatorial term, he announced his candidacy for President in 1968. His popularity as a young Kennedy and advocacy for labor movements and civil rights surged him to the front of the Democratic candidates.

After giving a speech to his supporters after winning the California primary in 1968, Kennedy exited through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. There he was shot by 24-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian Sirhan Sirhan, who felt betrayed by Kennedy’s support for Israel. Kennedy’s last words were “is everybody okay?”

Today, the Ambassador Hotel has been knocked down. The site has been rebuilt as a school and the Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park. In addition, numerous roads, public schools, and other facilities across the country have been named after him including RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington, DC.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations were blows to the promised progress of the sixties. However, his ideas of advocating for underrepresented and underprivileged people in the United States became a facet of American liberalism today.

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