On the 45th anniversary of his death, Deborah A. Lott describes the reaction to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy: in the Ambassador Hotel where he was scheduled to speak, and in the days and years after.
Forty-five years ago, in the spring of 1968, my two older brothers and I volunteered in Robert F. Kennedy’s California primary campaign. I was 16. My relationship to Bobby—we all called him Bobby then—felt personal. As an usher, at his Greek Theater rally, I sat with a group of other volunteers near enough to the stage that we could almost touch him.
In person, Bobby looked thinner than on TV, hunched over, and fragile, yet he radiated a contagious electric energy. That afternoon he sparred with the audience, improvising, pushing a wayward shock of hair out of his eyes. When he joked about telling his mother that no, he wasn’t going to get a haircut, we erupted in cheers. He seemed the opposite of calculating, as others had accused him of being—he seemed to be making it up as he went along, and I wondered if the devastation of losing his brother had led to a sea change. Whatever the cause, he seemed free, and that freedom felt contagious. I imagined myself planted among his offspring in an impromptu football game on the lawn. He was an alternate father, something I sorely needed since my father was in Glendale Adventist Hospital’s psychiatric ward receiving electroshock therapy.
I remember exactly what I wore the night of June 4, 1968, a short pink skirt and a ruffled white blouse. On the way to what we hoped would be Bobby’s California victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel, we stopped to visit my father. His decline had begun two years earlier. When he lost his elderly mother to cancer, he refused to accept the loss. Instead he’d protested, obsessed, and blamed himself and others, while swallowing painkillers and sedatives by the handful. What began as grief had devolved into paranoid psychosis. The shock treatment was meant to expunge the belief that my mother, uncle, and a slew of doctors were conspiring to do him in.
I wasn’t sure what to believe. I was struggling to retain a sometimes shaky hold on reality. I had always been too susceptible to my father’s state of mind, and I wasn’t very good at accepting loss either. Since my grandmother had died, I’d developed my own OCD rituals. I was afraid to grow up. But working in Bobby’s campaign was pulling me towards life and engagement in the world beyond my family. Robert F. Kennedy had the valence to break me out of my father’s orbit. With him I could be a part of a movement that was going to change the world, bring justice to the oppressed, end the escalating war in Vietnam.
Before we left for the Ambassador, we sat with my father in the visitors’ area.
“Are you proud of me for volunteering in Bobby’s campaign?” I asked. My father had been an Adlai Stevenson delegate to the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
He didn’t answer. Instead, with my mother out of earshot, he grabbed my forearm.
“Your mother’s letting them scramble my brains. You need to get me out of here.” His rancor filled the air like stale smoke.
I was beginning to see what my loyalty to him had cost me. “What do you want me to do, Daddy?” I said. “I’m only sixteen,” and I hurried out of there, eager to be with Bobby.
At the Ambassador, my brothers and some of the other volunteers and I convened in a ballroom on the lobby level of the hotel. We’d been told that Bobby would appear first in the Embassy Room upstairs, and then make a second speech for us. CBS had declared him the winner and the room was jubilant. RFK, RFK, we chanted. And then We Want Bobby, We Want Bobby, over and over again.
The first inkling I had that something was wrong was when some reporters at the front of the room stirred uneasily. I walked over to where they were standing and heard one say into his mouthpiece, “Oh my god, no.” They rushed out of the room. Then someone took the microphone and announced that Bobby had been hurt . . . then that he had been shot, but that he was still speaking and was on his way to a hospital. I felt the communal gasp of shock, and then a groan as the news traveled into our bodies. Finally the room filled with the sound of sniffling, then imploded with sobbing. Some people keeled half over as if they were going to collapse.
I watched as grown men, dressed in suits, took out their handkerchiefs and wept openly; and women turned pale, their lips suddenly dry and caked, took their shoes off and slumped on the floor, tearing their stockings. I saw strangers holding up strangers. A young Latino man fell to his knees, crossed himself and begin to sway back and forth, praying. People staggered, weaved, walked into walls as if drunk. Security officers appeared to escort all of us into the lobby. “Let’s have an orderly egress from the room” they said, but I couldn’t imagine how anything could be orderly. In the lobby, a distraught young man shouted something in Spanish, then upended a heavy coffee table, saying, “No, no, not again, not again.”
At home the next day, I kept my own vigil, hanging on to the words, “he’s speaking.” In my 16-year-old mind if you could speak after having been shot, you would live. When I woke the morning of the 6th and my mother told me that Bobby had died, I began to sob uncontrollably. I continued to cry for two days straight. On the radio and TV, commentators spoke of conspiracy theories no less baroque than the stories my father wove. A few days later, when I returned to school and described what I’d witnessed to my American history teacher, I couldn’t stop shaking.
Bobby’s death affected the young volunteers in a variety of ways. Some went to work in the Kennedy Action Corps, an organization formed quickly to carry out his mission. I tried but going back to what had been campaign headquarters felt too sad. Others migrated to Gene McCarthy’s campaign but his demeanor felt too cool to give me what I needed—which was clearly more than a candidate with the right platform. Some became instantly radicalized, feeling that only a violent revolution could save America now. Others gave up, retreating into drugs.
Losing Bobby might well have been the event that finally made me lose my mind, for in the weeks after that night, the world felt inexplicable and dangerous, as crazy as my father. But in the end, sharing in communal grief had the opposite effect. I was able to cry for Bobby in a way I had never been able to cry when my grandmother died, as I’d never been able to cry for my father, who was not dead, though he was lost to me.
I had loved Bobby without reservation and I had lost him, and as I grieved that loss, I felt healthier and more alive than I had ever felt. When Bobby’s brother died, he had not folded up into himself as my father had; he had not left his children to fend for themselves. His grief had washed him clean, opened him up, purified him to feel more deeply the pain of others. The night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, he’d stood on the inner city streets of Indianapolis and recited Aesychlus: In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
I was learning the difference between true emotion and my father’s hysteria. I could wallow in self-absorption or I could move into the larger world of social action. By accepting the inevitability of loss, I realized I could, like Bobby, fully inhabit myself. That June of 1968, and in the years since, I’ve vowed to do what Bobby Kennedy did: I have turned my grief into love.
Read more on Mentoring & Volunteering.
Image credit: Dave Robinette/Flickr