My View: A child’s remembrances of RFK

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The writer, Denise Dunbar, with her mother in 1968 (Courtesy photo)
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By Denise Dunbar

My family was touring one of the glass-blowing shops in Flemington, New Jersey with out-of-town family on June 6, 1968 when news came over the radio that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had died that morn- ing from gunshot wounds suf- fered the prior day. Everyone stopped and there were mur- murs of dismay. We soon went home.

I was eight years old, and Kennedy’s death – more than anything else that happened in that tumultuous year of 1968 – rocked my world.

I read the tabloid newspa- per that my dad brought home with him each day from New York City, where he worked. The news that year was ex- traordinarily difficult to make sense of, and though I tried, it was with an eight-year-old’s sensibility that I viewed all of these strange and awful events – and watched my parents’ reaction to them.

Just two months earlier, I had been sitting in our den in northern New Jersey watching TV when news reports broke into the broadcast saying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

My parents were saddened, but not surprised when King was killed. They said the racial tension that had been building had become explosive. They had sensed something dread- ful was in the air.

My parents were terrified by the violence that followed King’s murder, as grief-strick- en blacks erupted in anger in cities around the country. We watched the news in disbelief as large swaths of Washington, D.C., where my parents had met 14 years before, burned. Cities near us, such as Trenton and Newark, were also in turmoil.

That apprehension was layered on top of growing concern as student protests mounted against the Vietnam War. A little more than two months before King’s assassination, on Jan. 30, the North Vietnamese had launched the TET Offensive against South Vietnam and U.S. armed forces stationed there.

So, in less than six months, America endured the turning point of the Vietnam War, when it became clear there would be no easy victory, and the assassinations of its fore- most Civil Rights leader and its brightest political light.

Though just a young child, I could tell there was something different about Robert Kennedy. Yes, he was handsome. And though I can’t find a clip of it, I remember a cam- paign commercial had “This Land is Your Land” – one of my favorite songs – as its background.

But what was amazing about him was the fact that he traveled to the poorest parts of America, to West Virginia and East Los Angeles – in an era when that wasn’t really done – and spoke from the heart. That he was a uniter and not a divider. That, wherever he went, he gave people hope. All of that was evident, even to an eight-year-old.

A photo of the train from 1968 (Courtesy photo)

After his funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Kennedy’s body traveled by train to Washington to be buried near his brother, John F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery. My mother brought me to see that train, and a photo she took of it is on the left. I remember standing in a crowd, and watching quietly as the train went by. I don’t know if I waved, or cried, though I’m sure my mom did.

Since then, I’ve had an enduring fascination with RFK. In college, I did a major political science paper that examined whether he would have captured the 1968 Democratic nomination had he lived. I thought so; the data was inconclusive.

After graduating, I went to work for the Charlotte Observer newspaper, and, admittedly morbidly, one day went into their archives and read their coverage from the time Kennedy entered the race up to his assassination. Maybe I was hoping for a different outcome.

Kennedy told a mostly black audience the night King was assassinated: “What we need in the United States 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 towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

One video clip about 1968 said with the deaths of King and Kennedy, we lost a generation’s transformational leaders. I think our country still suffers from their loss.

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