Golis: From RFK to Trump. How things have changed

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Three days after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, a funeral train carried his body from New York City to his burial place in Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C.

The journey is remembered because tens of thousands of people lined the route through New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, standing in silent salute as the train passed. Photos of the mourners would become symbols of a tumultuous year in which America was forever changed.

In this 50th anniversary year, some may be getting tired of reading about 1968, but for baby boomers, it remains the year in which the country seemed to lose its way.

And there is this: The issues that motivated Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president remain unresolved and often unspoken today.

Some of the photographs are featured in a current exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The Train — RFK’s Last Journey” includes images taken from the train by photographer Paul Fusco. In one iconic photo, three African-Americans are holding up a sign that reads simply: “So long, Bobby.”

Robert Kennedy was a controversial figure. His critics said he was a ruthless political operative and an opportunist who came late to his opposition to the Vietnam War.

But there was something about his 1968 campaign for president that catalyzed a movement and caused people to believe that America could do better. Kennedy found his stride as he spoke on behalf of working people, especially people of color.

On the night civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered, Kennedy ignored the advice of police and traveled to a black neighborhood in Indianapolis. There, he climbed on the back of a truck and told the crowd that King had been killed.

“What we need in the United States,” he said, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but 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 they be black.”

He concluded: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago — to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

What are the chances that a political leader today would speak those words? Or travel to California to appear with a controversial champion of the immigrant poor? Yet there was Kennedy alongside Cesar Chavez as he ended a 25-day hunger strike.

Kennedy tried to convince Americans that they should look out for one another. In a new biography (“Bobby Kennedy, A Raging Spirit”), Chris Matthews writes: “As a politician, he often seems out there alone in his insistence that America, which he believed deeply to be great, needed also to be good.”

Even his admirers would agree that President Donald Trump is pursuing a different path. If this president is bothered by the divisions in the country, he doesn’t let on. This is the president who said Americans should fear immigrants and the president who counted “many fine people” among the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer.

By the time 1968 came around, the country was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and still trying to make sense of the loss of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s brother, who was assassinated in November 1963.

On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Then, on June 5, 42-year-old Robert Kennedy won the California Democratic presidential primary. After speaking to supporters at a Los Angeles hotel, he was shot and killed as he passed through the hotel kitchen.

And so it went in 1968. The war in Vietnam dragged on, and a weary President Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. There were race riots in urban centers and violent clashes between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In November, Richard Nixon would be elected president. Six years later, he would resign in the Watergate scandal.

In “Robert Kennedy, His Life,” perhaps the best of the RFK biographies, Evan Thomas writes: “We will never know what kind of president Robert Kennedy might have been. He might have been rash, he might have tried to do too much, and he might have blundered. … But he would surely have tried to tackle the problems of poverty and discrimination, and he would have tried to stop the killing in Vietnam long before President Nixon did.”

Fifty years on, Kennedy still matters because of all that has happened in the intervening years. In its own way, even the election of President Donald Trump becomes testimony to the country’s struggle to resolve problems associated with income inequality and race bias.

Eighty-two days after he declared his candidacy for president, Robert Kennedy was murdered, leaving Americans to wonder how history might have been different.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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