Bobby Kennedy’s death, when hope turned to despair

It has been 55 years to the day since Bobby (referred to more formally as Robert F.) Kennedy died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The anniversary brings back personal memories and lingering sadness over what could have been had an assassin not ended his life and, with it, the hopes of a generation.  Here’s a snippet from my work-in-progress memoir:

When Robert Kennedy comes to Philadelphia during the 1968 Pennsylvania primary campaign, I wind up at City Hall Plaza and climb a pole to see him, even as I take notes on what he says.  There is so much excitement at his physical presence; feelings of hope, of possibility, are palpable.  I share this as well, although, true to my calling, I don’t yell or cheer, I merely scribble on my notepad. The crowd is so large and boisterous, the candidate has trouble addressing it. “I’m very pleased to be here,” he begins. “I can’t do anything, but I’m very pleased to be here. It’s a marvelous rally. No one can hear.” After a few minutes, he is able to speak seriously, but with flashes of humor. “Listen, would you mind giving me a little cheer at the end of each sentence…I’d like to announce someone’s taking off my shoe.”  I am writing this from my notes, penciled on two ripped out notebook pages. None of it finds its way into print—until now.  Two months later, the heir apparent to the martyred president will himself be dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet in Los Angeles just after declaring victory in the key California primary.  

I still have those notes, saved on scraps of paper.  The night of the California primary , I stayed up late to watch Bobby Kennedy’s remarkable victory speech on our small black and white TV, and then came the assassin’s shot and mayhem.  It was 2 a.m. in Philadelphia, and suddenly it was  mourning — not morning — in America. I was 26 years old and now felt a lot older.

His death comes two months after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, by a white racist, James Earl Ray, who will die in prison.  In just the blink of an eye, our future has been taken from us, sparking outbursts of rage and unspeakable sadness.  The feeling of helplessness, of hopelessness is almost palatable, as the Democrats convene in Chicago, where police attack protesters, who chant, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.”  I am watching, too, but on television, horrified.  What to do?

Fifty-five years later, there are still no good answers.


  1. Bonnie Friedman on June 6, 2023 at 12:23 pm

    This brings back strong memories for me too. I was just graduating from high school, getting ready to go to college in the fall. The Vietnam War was raging; America was in turmoil following the death of Dr MLK; and Bobby Kennedy was my beacon of hope.

    The night of his assassination was my high school graduation. I stayed up late celebrating with friends; none of us monitoring news accounts. Then I spent the night at my best friend’s house. We woke in the morning to the radio playing Buffalo Springfield’s “Something’s happening here. There’s a man with a gun over there …” That song still gives me chills.

    It took several minutes (that seemed like hours) before we knew what had happened. It took much longer to absorb the shock of it. And to this day, I also wonder, “What if?”

  2. Dan Schlieben on June 6, 2023 at 12:50 pm

    Yes, many of us felt a keen sense of loss during these times. When MLK was killed I was playing in a big band made up of people of color and others. When announced, everyone was stunned and we, without saying anything, each packed up and left the hall. When “Bobby” was killed my brother woke me the following morning and made the announcement. We were both speechless. Days of endless news watching was the best I could rally and then memorial services at UU churches nearby. God help us if such a fate should befall
    us again in this wrought political climate. Thanks for posting, Gene.

  3. Amy Schwartz on June 6, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    I was six when this happened, and I remember it vividly. Both my parents knew Bobby slightly and had been involved with his campaign. (We used to get their Christmas cards, with the ever-increasing number of kids posing in a line or, one year, all in snake formation going down a slide.) My mother was giving me breakfast before school when the news came over the radio. She ran out of the kitchen toward the back of the house where my father was shaving, screaming, “Stu, Stu! They shot Bobby, they shot Bobby!”

  4. Steve Fehr on June 6, 2023 at 3:02 pm

    15 yo, stayed up to watch the CA primary election results, the 11 o.m. news and Bobby’s victory speech 35 miles away in Los Angeles. The news cut in live from the hotel after Bobby was shot. I was alone in our house because everyone had gone to bed. It was less than two months since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and a few months before the turbulent Chicago convention. If that wasn’t enough for news, in sports we had a 31 game winner! We ended the year watching astronauts circle the moon. You never knew what was going to happen next.

Leave a Comment