Robert F. Kennedy
Lawyer and politician. U.S. attorney general, U.S. senator from New York, candidate for president. Defending human rights by exposing injustice and righting wrongs, all in pursuit of a more just and peaceful world.
Featured lessonCourageous Ideas, Words and Actions for Human Rights for All
Robert Francis Kennedy, affectionately known as Bobby, was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Mass., to Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. “I was the seventh of nine children,” he noted, “and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive.” He attended Milton Academy and, after wartime service in the navy, graduated from Harvard University in 1948 and earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School three years later. But perhaps hours spent at the Kennedy family dinner table, with endless discussions of history and current affairs, were the most memorable aspect of his education.
Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel in 1950, and over the course of 17 years they had 11 children. In 1952, he made his political debut as manager of his older brother John’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. Later, he worked in the U.S. Senate, winning attention as the Senate’s lead lawyer investigating Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa. In 1960, he was the tireless and effective leader of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After the election, he was appointed attorney general in President Kennedy’s cabinet, winning respect for his diligent and nonpartisan administration of the Department of Justice by fighting organized crime and helping African Americans exercise their right to vote, attend integrated schools, and use public accommodations. And, as the president’s closest friend and most trusted adviser, Robert Kennedy also helped propose the most far-reaching civil rights law since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed eight months after President Kennedy’s death.
It was soon after the tragic death of his brother that Robert Kennedy resigned as attorney general and ran successfully for the United States Senate in New York in 1964. As New York’s senator, he initiated a number of noteworthy projects, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn.
Then, on March 18, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “an uproarious campaign, filled with enthusiasm and fun.... It was also a campaign moving in its sweep and passion.” Kennedy sought to bridge the great divides in American life—between the races, between the poor and the affluent, between young and old. The campaign brought hope to an American people troubled by war in Vietnam and discontent and violence at home. He won critical primaries in Indiana and Nebraska and spoke to enthusiastic crowds across the nation.
Robert Francis Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, shortly after claiming victory in California’s crucial Democratic primary. He was 42 years old.
Robert F. Kennedy was committed to the principles of freedom and social justice. He carried a message of hope and an unwavering conviction that courage would bring change, urging each person not to turn a blind eye but to tackle the issues that challenge freedom and justice. His legacy, vision, and ideals live on today through the work of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
“Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.”
Help Us Protect Human Rights
Please give now. Your contribution will make a difference in the critical effort to achieve equal rights for all.