The What and Why Behind Bobby Kennedy’s Assassination
The year was 1968 and America was locked into a contentious presidential campaign. Race relations and riots over the Vietnam War were at an all-time high. All of this turbulence and uncertainty played a major role in the overall mood of the presidential race, but things took a turn for the worse when one of the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination was assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy died on June 5th, 1968, just after winning the California primary. Take a look back at what happened before the course of history changed forever.
Rising Tensions in America
While many people were thrilled with the prospect of electing another Kennedy, the overall mood of the country was one of protest in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally murdered on April 4th, 1968, bringing racial tensions to new heights. Protests were also unfolding all over the country in reaction to the Vietnam War.
The 1968 Presidential Election
The election of 1968 was viewed as one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history. Just five years after the nation watched John F. Kennedy get brutally murdered in Dallas, Texas, it was time to elect a new leader. The incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson was running for reelection until he wasn’t. Johnson had to endure a great deal of heartache and opposition during his time as President. After being abruptly sworn in after JFK’s assassination, Johnson faced a lot scrutiny for signing the Voting Rights Act into law and maintaining his support for Medicaid and his “War on Poverty.” All in all, another term just felt like too much of a burden to bear.
Johnson was also facing a strong opponent in his own Democratic party for the presidential nomination. Senator Eugene McCarthy had just secured 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Robert Kennedy threw his hat into the ring. When Johnson withdrew his name, Kennedy was facing opposition from McCarthy and then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was also seeking the highest office in the land.
Support for Israel
As he was taking to the campaign trail, Robert Kennedy was gearing up for an endless whirlwind of public appearances, selling his vision for the future of America. While he was mostly seen as a social progressive, Kennedy was also adamant about his support for Israel. This drew ire from the Palestinian community, many of whom saw Kennedy as being biased towards Israel as conflicts continued throughout the Middle East.
The Night of June 5th, 1968
Tuesday June 4th, 1968 was the day of the California primary. Just a few hours after the polls had closed in the state, it was clear that Robert Kennedy was the winner, securing 46% of the vote compared to McCarthy’s 42%. Kennedy gave a victory speech to his supporters in the wee hours of the morning on June 5th, speaking in the Embassy Ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The crowd was large, filled with boisterous supporters and fans desperate to get a look at what they had hoped would be the next President of the U.S. Kennedy was known for getting intimate with the crowd, shaking hands and giving hugs to nearly everyone that he met.
After his speech, Kennedy was expected to appear at a press conference in the other room. Instead of walking through the ballroom to engage more with his supporters, Kennedy was urged by one of his top aides to go through the kitchen, thinking that it would be the faster route. As they passed through the doors, a man later identified as Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian from Jordon who strongly opposed Israel, fatally shot Robert Kennedy.
It’s important to note that, at the time, protection from the Secret Service was not yet afforded to presidential candidates, only to the President himself. At the time of his death, Kennedy only had the protection of two personal bodyguards, both of which were former professional athletes, and a former FBI agent. After Kennedy’s assassination, the Secret Service began lending their services to all presidential candidates.
Aftermath and a New President
Many historians believed that Kennedy would have won the nomination and the presidency if it weren’t for the tragic events on June 5th. Ultimately, Richard Nixon won the election with a narrow victory, becoming the 37th President of the U.S.