Remembering RFK: The lasting legacy of Bobby Kennedy

FILE - In this April 2, 1968 file photo U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, shakes hands with people in a crowd while campaigning for the Democratic party's presidential nomination on a street corner, in Philadelphia. The suburban Boston house where Robert F. Kennedy was born, now a national historic site in tribute to his more famous brother, President John F. Kennedy, is holding a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of RFK's assassination on June 6, 1968. (AP Photo/Warren Winterbottom, File)

Throughout the past week, faded images of Bobby Kennedy have been meandering through my mind like a soft evening breeze drifting through the trees. You feel its coolness brushing by you without actually seeing it. The assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968, was a day that not only wounded America, but one that also shattered the hopes and dreams of a restless generation to whom he was a hero.

Building momentum in his quest to follow his martyred brother into the Oval Office, Bobby picked up the mantel and became a political pied piper who, in an all too brief 80 day presidential run in that long ago spring and early summer season, took the youth of America by its collective hand and lead them down the path to what they wanted America to become.

Just 42 years old when he drew his last breathe of life in early hours of that fateful June morning 50 years ago, Bobby Kennedy’s death left him forever frozen him in time as the symbol of that restless generation caught in the throes of a tumultuous world, trying desperately to cope with the daunting challenge of seeking to rise up and confront the world that was an unwanted inheritance.

It included a brutal and unpopular war that ripped the heart out of America, deep racial prejudices and glaring social inequality. He died as he lived, a mainstream liberal politician who was a beacon of hope for that restless generation that wanted to do something to cure a national nervous breakdown.

His death was a catalyst that only deepened America’s self-doubt and exacerbated its frustration and collective state of depression with a growing violence that had taken the life, not only of President John F. Kennedy five years earlier, but also of Dr. Martin Luther King in April of 1968. The country was sick; the victim of a spreading disease of violence and hatred that was infecting everything it touched. In the spring of 1968, America needed a political leader in whom it could place its faith and trust.

FILE-- In this June 7, 1968 file photograph, a young boy touches the casket of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, while paying respects at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. The suburban Boston house where Robert F. Kennedy was born, now a national historic site in tribute to his more famous brother, President John F. Kennedy, is holding a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of RFK's assassination on June 6, 1968. (AP Photo/stf)

As seen through the foggy looking glass of time, what is crystal clear, from this time and this place, is the undisputable fact that Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were both leaders who preached non-violence and change within the system, and who were both killed by the forces of evil and hatred for what the beliefs that they held. In the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s murder, Bobby Kennedy was the person who that generation place their faith in to light a new torch. On the morning of June 6, 1968, that generation woke up to a groundswell of hopelessness, anger and desperation that was numbing and surreal in scope. A stunned disbelief grabbed America by the throat on that summer morning when kids from Maine to California were busy preparing to graduate from high schools and colleges, and when young girls were making wedding plans. It couldn’t possibly happen again, and yet it did.

Today, the America that we have inherited, and those who lead us, is indeed a far cry from the one that Booby Kennedy lived in. His empathy for those less fortunate than himself, and his capacity to reach across racial lines and social barriers, sought to affect positive change, seems to have been thrown out the window and left of the side of life’s highway liked a crushed beer can. Looking back at Bobby Kennedy, he was a political leader who had the gift for listening to people, and really hearing them; even those who disagreed with him. That uncanny ability in him also seems to have been left on the side of the road.

Where RFK campaigned on a platform of commitment of inclusiveness, to eradicating poverty and ending the racial and social inequalities that he saw in America’s south, what we see today is a bottomless divisiveness that taps into people’s deepest fears, anger and hatred. Today’s scenario is one that has American law enforcement officials tearing children away from the arms of their mothers at the border, and an Oval Office dream of erecting a billion-dollar wall around America to keep out those it sees as undesirable.

In these times, we have a White House that fans the flames of hatred by pitting ethnic and religious sects against each other. In the final analysis, in death, Bobby Kennedy, with his spirit of reaching out to bring all people together under an umbrella of acceptance and the hope for a better and brighter tomorrow, has come to be the embodiment of a restless generation’s lost dream. As we look around us at these times, one can’t help but yearn to rekindle the spirit that formed the underpinning of who he was, and the political ideals that he championed.

Perhaps the words that his brother Ted Kennedy, as he eulogized him in a tearful and quivering voice, capture the essence of who Bobby Kennedy was, and the legacy that he left behind: “As he said many times in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were, and say, why not.’ ”

FILE-- Sen. John F. Kennedy, center, D-Mass., and his brothers Edward Kennedy, left, a student at the University of Virginia, and Robert F. Kennedy, chief counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee, attend the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 1958. The suburban Boston house where Robert F. Kennedy was born, now a national historic site in tribute to his more famous brother, President John F. Kennedy, is holding a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of RFK's assassination on June 6, 1968. (AP Photo)

Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough, Mass.

FILE--In this June 19, 2002 file photograph Leonor Suarez, of Brookline, Mass., left, takes a photograph of her brother, Joes Luis Suarez, of Almeria, Spain, in Brookline, in front of the family home of President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY. The suburban Boston house where Robert F. Kennedy was born, now a national historic site in tribute to his more famous brother, President John F. Kennedy, is holding a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of RFK's assassination on June 6, 1968. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

FILE--In this 1946 file photograph, John F. Kennedy, left, is shown with his brother, Robert Kennedy, and his dog, Mo, in Hyannisport, Mass. at the family's summer compound on Cape Cod. The suburban Boston house where Robert F. Kennedy was born, now a national historic site in tribute to his more famous brother, President John F. Kennedy, is holding a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of RFK's assassination on June 6, 1968. (AP Photo)