Our Voices

RFK: Personal Anecdotes 55 Years on

May 1968 was Robert F. Kennedy’s last full month of campaigning for president before he was killed in June.

While he is remembered more broadly for his vision of a more just and peaceful world, it is, perhaps, the anecdotes that best illustrate his character and a place to draw inspiration.

Kevin Khadavi and Zoel Boublil, both members of the Speak Truth to Power Youth Advisory Board, look at some of these moments and examine how they can shape our views on advancing and expanding human rights and social justice.

Kevin Khadavi:

There is an RFK anecdote I think of often from the late Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy’s press secretary during the 1968 campaign. In his memoir So I Was Saying … and also in an interview years later, Mankiewicz recalls a day on the campaign trail: A reporter approached Kennedy on a plane and asked him about his position on capital punishment.

“I’m against it,” Kennedy told the reporter.

The reporter pressed further. “When you were at the Justice Department, that wasn’t your position.”

“That was before I read Camus,” Kennedy replied.

French philosopher Albert Camus explored death and the human experience, and his writings so touched Kennedy that he was willing to publicly change his position on capital punishment.

I am inspired by this nearly 55 years after his death – and it isn’t about Camus. Change – what author Jack Newfield called “the motif of (Robert Kennedy’s) whole life and career” – is a place where we all can draw inspiration. RFK’s change was unorthodox but intentional, it was sought after, and, ultimately, it was done with pride.

Late civil rights leader Charles Evers commented on Bobby’s capacity for change: “The reason Bobby changed, I think, is because he wanted to change. He was young, and he was ambitious, and he wanted to do something that was different. He wanted to prove to people that there were people with all the affluence in this country that he possessed (who) could also be as little and as humble as anyone else. He changed because he listened. Most politicians don’t listen…Bobby was the kind of guy who said what he believed, and said what he thought was right.”

It is Robert Kennedy’s confidence, paired with his desire to be the best person he could – and expect the same from those around him – that continues to capture the public imagination more than a half-century later.

While the desire for growth is embedded deep within humanity, I’m still struck by how RFK continuously challenged his beliefs as he gained insight, and how he used that insight to improve the lives of others. It encourages me to do the same.

Zoel Boublil:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Attorney General Robert Kennedy also wore two more hats – mediator and trusted adviser – and he brought his personal style of politics to each.

As the most-trusted top adviser to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, during the crisis, he met with the intelligence community and developed possible arguments from all involved in order to keep the U.S. well-prepared.

He also served as his brother’s de facto chief of staff, “the No. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6” man in Washington, as per President Kennedy. He shined as a key mediator in the situation room and primary negotiator with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin.

RFK’s steadfastness and kindness stood out, as he often privately met with the President to talk freely about the situation and provide him an unofficial way to understand the positions of top U.S. and Soviet officials.

His roles as a mediator and trusted advisor didn’t stop in the U.S. government; they are apparent in RFK’s civil rights work as well. Often, figures with such a broad legacy are put into boxes, labeled as a force in one specific area, ignoring the holistic view.

However, like other luminaries, RFK’s experiences in every aspect of his life and career – whether dealing with foreign diplomats, local activists, or family – educated his perspective and reinforced his worldview. It is this vision, one in which “love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another,” are paramount, and that “a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer,” is essential, that I believe we must work toward today.