RFK Plus 50

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Here’s a thing I posted 10 years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It links to a piece I contributed to Popdose that same day, which was based on something I wrote at my very first blog, probably on the 35th anniversary in 2003. It’s been edited a bit. For more on this day 50 years ago, scroll through my Twitter feed in the right-hand column. 

It happened just after midnight in Los Angeles, so most of the country learned of it first thing in the morning. I remember coming out from my bedroom and hearing the news, one of the first days after school got out. I would have just finished second grade. Kennedy would die the next day, June 6, 1968. Over at Popdose, you’ll find a piece I wrote about the historical what-ifs involving the assassination of RFK. Here, I’d like to add some additional color from that day.

At YouTube, there’s a three-part video titled “RFK Assassination as it Happened,” which features RFK’s California primary victory speech and raw footage of the shooting aftermath and news coverage. It’s taken from one of those conspiracy DVDs that claims to find the real truth behind the Kennedy assassinations in connections between the CIA, the mob, and (for all I know) UFOs. Fortunately, there’s little of that flavor in the YouTube excerpts. You can find part one of the video and navigate to the additional parts here.

In London, the Rolling Stones had started recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” On the fly, Mick Jagger revised the song’s lyric, singing “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys’”, instead of the original reference only to “John Kennedy.” If the standard chronology of the song’s recording is correct, the lyric would have been changed before RFK died.

When the Top 40 stations finished reporting the day’s sorry news and went back to music, it must have been difficult to reconcile the hits of the day with the real world. The Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning” may have been meteorologically appropriate in many places, like my town, but not spiritually. Love songs like “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Cowboys to Girls,” and “Like to Get to Know You” would have seemed trivial. The frivolity of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” must have been hard to stomach. “Reach Out in the Darkness” by Friend and Lover must have seemed like a dream crushed at birth. When Jim and Cathy Post sang about “people finally gettin’ together,” they did not imagine it would be around another Kennedy’s bier.“ Mony Mony,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “Indian Lake,” “Jumping Jack Flash”—diversions all, but probably not diverting enough.

One might have hoped for solace through the cathartic emotion found in the best soul music, maybe from “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” the last hit by the David Ruffin edition of the Temptations. But what’s likeliest of all is that there was no quick fix, from the radio or from any other source. RFK himself, speaking on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, reminded his audience that grief takes time: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Fifty years later, we hope to have acquired the wisdom, although a trace of the grief lingers.

As I wrote in my Popdose piece, I don’t think RFK would have gotten the Democratic nomination in 1968 or been elected that fall if he had. But I can’t be sure. He entered the race at a moment when millions of Americans were crying “enough,” not just about Vietnam but about poverty, racism, and a host of other ills, and perhaps their righteous anger would have been enough to make a miracle. Today, there’s a sense—or maybe not quite a sense, but a hope—that millions of Americans have seen enough Trumpism, the logical end point of a generation of conservative snake oil, to cry “enough.” If we make it to November, perhaps we’ll demand leaders who, instead of sowing division and inflicting pain by the simple act of showing up for work in the morning, will see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to stop it.

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