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  • Senator Robert F. Kennedy on a campaign stop in Fort Wayne on April 23,1968.

  • Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. along with his wife. Ethel, on a campaign stop, one of three in Fort Wayne in 1968, talks from the end car of the old Wabash Cannonball train before riding in a motorcade to the campus of Concordia Seminary.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018 1:00 am


A lingering loss

50 years after assassination, what-ifs swirl around RFK

In the early hours of June 5, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had just claimed victory in a hard-fought California Democratic primary race against Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Coming less than five years after the killing of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert's death was not just a tragedy, but a turning point.

Before President Kennedy's 1963 assassination, Robert Kennedy was primarily viewed as the president's tougher-minded brother. But as Christine Erickson, associate professor of history at Purdue Fort Wayne, said in an interview last week, RFK soon came into his own.

“As the '60s go on, he grows, and he begins to speak out. He becomes really a kind of an activist” on civil rights and against the war the Kennedy administration had helped start. “He had a strong moral center,” she said. “It just shows how some people can grow and learn and evolve.”

By 1968, “he had a remarkable ability to appeal to people's better nature,” Erickson said. “Their sense of justice, decency, the sense of fair play, and their sense of personal responsibility.

“He would tell them, you don't like the war in Vietnam, it's your responsibility to do something about it.”  

In the 1968 Indiana primary, in which he beat McCarthy and favorite-son candidate Gov. Roger Branigin, Kennedy showed he could connect with a wide swath of voters.He and his wife, Ethel, spent much of the spring criss-crossing the state, repeatedly visiting Fort Wayne and most of Indiana's other large cities.

Presidential candidates still did not have Secret Service protection, but Kennedy might well have tried to refuse it anyway. The senator waded fearlessly into crowds or stood in the back of a slowly moving, open car. Hoosiers fought to get a look at him or touch his hand; in Mishawaka, frenzied well-wishers pulled him to the ground, splitting the senator's lip. 

Kennedy died less than a month after his victory in the May 7 Indiana primary. No one knows, of course, whether he could have won the nomination and the presidency. But Michael Wolf, professor of political science at Purdue Fort Wayne, believes Kennedy's talents as a unifier might have prevented the upheaval at the Democratic convention in Chicago that August – disruption that ultimately helped lead both parties to total reliance on primaries and caucuses to select presidential candidates. For better or worse, Wolf said, that, in turn, has encouraged the trend toward the selection of “outsider” candidates such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump over more-experienced “insider” candidates. 

“It was a massive change in the way we select presidents,” Wolf said. “Had Kennedy not been shot ... had he ended up going up to the convention and being chosen as the nominee, first, would we have that nightmare scene of all the protests, and the police beating of protesters and the huge divisiveness on the streets ... and in the convention hall?”

One moment during the Indiana campaign still shines in the nation's memory – when Kennedy, two months before his own murder, broke the news to a horrified crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He reminded the largely black, inner-city audience of his own brother's killing and eloquently expressed his hope that such acts would move America to become a better place. The brief, heartfelt speech was credited with saving Indianapolis from the destructive riots that raged in many cities that night.  

It also suggests how much we all might have lost, 50 years ago today.