Michael's essay: What the world lost when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated

“It is hard in these callous and polarizing times to convey Bobby Kennedy's national popularity. He was literally mobbed everywhere he appeared; his cufflinks were torn off, his shoes taken for souvenirs.”
Robert F. Kennedy in London in May 1967. (George Freston/Getty Images)
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On the night of April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy stood atop a flatbed truck before a largely black audience in Indianapolis, and told the crowd that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that day.

Ignoring warnings of his security detail and speaking without notes, Kennedy talked about hatred, about love, about the need for compassion in the worst of times.

He understood the pain of African Americans and the urge for revenge.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd outside the Justice Department; a sign for the Congress of Racial Equality is prominently displayed. (Warren K. Leffler/Getty Images)

He said, "I had a member of my family killed, and he was killed by a white man."

In the days that followed, riots broke out in more than 100 cities. Nearly 50 people were killed. National guardsmen and federal troops were called in to restore order across the country. Of all the major cities in the U.S., only Indianapolis stayed calm.

Sixty-three days later, Robert Francis Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died a few hours later. He was 42.

Fifty years on, it is hard to explain to the current generation who Kennedy was and what his death meant to the U.S. and to the rest of us.

By the spring of 1968, the United States was well underway to tearing itself apart. Domestically, angry African Americans in their united might were forcing the government to confront racism and finally deal with civil rights in a concrete and meaningful way.

Young baby boomers coming of age were upending the academic conventions of U.S. universities by turning the campuses into free-for-alls of angry debate.

The young seemed bent on war with their parents. They were also fearful of the military draft. Escalation of the Vietnam War by presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson saw more than 500,000 young Americans fighting in the marshes and rice paddies of a country few of them could locate on a map.

Nobody was ever neutral about Bobby Kennedy. He was hated as much as he was admired and feared, and later loved. The left could never forgive him his work with Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious subcommittee on investigations. Both of them were Irish Catholics, both of them hated communism.

After only five months, Kennedy quit McCarthy and his committee, sickened by the senator's tactics and the appalling figure of Roy Cohn, the senator's lead counsel. RFK later wrote a report calling for senate sanctions of McCarthy's behaviour. Yet in 1957, he attended McCarthy's funeral.

 Bobby Kennedy was tough, mean-minded, vengeful, a schemer and yes, ruthless when he had to be. - Michael Enright

Bobby Kennedy was tough, mean-minded, vengeful, a schemer and yes, ruthless when he had to be.

Jackie Kennedy walks away from the grave site of her husband John F. Kennedy, Nov. 25, 1963, at Arlington Cemetery. Robert Kennedy is at her side. (National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty images)

He was a man who knew how to hate.

To Kennedy, there was no higher or more important human value than loyalty. His view of the world was essentially Manichaean — divided by good and evil, heroes and villains, right or wrong. For him there was no middle ground; you were either for or against.

The post-assassination Bobby was a very different figure from the cutthroat JFK attorney general. The death of his brother somehow triggered in him a sense of his own mortality, and a burning need to set aright the balance of the world. Where before civil rights sat at the lower end of Kennedy's priorities, after November 1963, it became a matter of all-consuming urgency.

After the murder of  Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy became black America's greatest tribune. As senator, he pushed to have poverty at the top of the government's social agenda.

Unlike other politicians, he went into the backwaters of Appalachia and the hollows of Eastern Kentucky and the Ozarks to sit and talk to poor families about their every struggle to stay alive. He reached out and spoke to young people around the world. In South Africa, he preached freedom to the apartheid regime. In Japan and the Philippines, he talked about freedom from want.

Huge crowds were drawn to him by his passionate embrace of those who suffered from poverty, racism or ignorance. TIME Magazine said he had "the capacity to make the past seem better than it ever was, and the future better than it can possibly be."

Supporters listening to Robert Kennedy at an election rally on Jan. 1, 1968. Kennedy was shot six months later; he died just after midnight on June 6. (Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)
 It is hard in these callous and polarizing times to convey Bobby Kennedy's national popularity. He was literally mobbed everywhere he appeared; his cufflinks were torn off, his shoes taken for souvenirs.

He was popular in the great cities of New York and Los Angeles and Boston, but he was idolized in the poor black areas of places like Watts, Harlem and East Chicago. At the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964, he was given a standing ovation that lasted 22 minutes.

I was Washington correspondent for a Canadian newspaper in 1968, and I remember the comments of John Lindsay, who covered the senate for Newsweek Magazine.

 Kennedy is not going all the way. The reason is that someone is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it.- John Lindsay, Newsweek Magazine

"Kennedy is not going all the way," said Lindsay. "The reason is that someone is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it."

To watch the footage of Bobby Kennedy's last campaign tears at the heart not only for the death of a young, dynamic leader. We also mourn for what the United States and the world lost after he turned, smiling, from the microphones and walked into that hotel kitchen, 50 years ago.

Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear Michael's essay.