Robert F. Kennedy: A Brief Biography
“Fifty years after his death, RFK’s leadership qualities have never been more needed, starting with his compassion and idealism; his concern for civil rights and the dispossessed; his hatred of braggadocio, lying, and corruption; his demands for a carefully calibrated foreign policy and sane management of world crises; his sense of humor and irony; and his ability to grow.”
—Michael Beschloss 2018
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child in the closely knit and competitive family of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. "I was the seventh of nine children," he later recalled, "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 from 1944-1946, received his degree in government from Harvard University in 1948.
On June 17, 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel of Greenwich, Connecticut, daughter of Ann Brannack Skakel and George Skakel, founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation. Robert and Ethel Kennedy later had eleven children: Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry (today president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights), Christopher, Max, Doug and Rory.
He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School three years later. While serving as president of the Student Legal Forum during his third year of law school, Robert recruited African-American Diplomat Ralph Bunche -- winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, and founder of the United Nations -- to address one of the first integrated audiences in the history of the university.
Prior to entering public office, Robert practiced law in Washington, D.C. and worked as a special correspondent for the Boston Post, for which he travelled to Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Perhaps more important for his education was the Kennedy family dinner table, where his parents involved their children in discussions of history and current affairs. "I can hardly remember a mealtime," Robert Kennedy said, "when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world."
In 1952, he made his political debut as manager of his older brother John's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. The following year, he served briefly on the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Kennedy's investigative work confirmed reports that countries allied with the United States against Communist China in the Korean War were also shipping goods to Communist China, but did not imply, as Senator McCarthy often did, that traitors were making American foreign policy.
Disturbed by McCarthy's controversial tactics, Kennedy resigned from the staff after six months. He later returned to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority, in which capacity he wrote a report condemning McCarthy's investigation of alleged Communists in the Army.
His later work as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption in trade unions won him national recognition for his investigations of Teamsters Union leaders Jimmy Hoffa and David Beck.
In 1960 he was the tireless and effective manager of John's presidential campaign. After the election, he was appointed Attorney General in President Kennedy's Cabinet. While Attorney General, he won respect for his diligent, effective, and nonpartisan administration of the Department of Justice. During this time Robert also became increasingly committed to the rights of African Americans to vote, receive an equal education, and use public accommodations. He demonstrated his commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."
“We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court School Desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.”
In May of 1961, when a hostile mob threatened Freedom Riders at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Kennedy's threat to deploy U.S. Marshals ensured that the riders were able to continue their historic journey unhurt. In response to the Freedom Rides, In September of that year, Robert orders the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregation in interstate bus terminals.
In September of 1962, Robert Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a federal court order admitting James Meredith, an African American, to the University of Mississippi, which had previously been a bastion of segregation. The riot that had followed Meredith's registration at Ole Miss left two dead and hundreds injured.
In June of 1963, Robert sent Deputy Attorney General Nicholas deBelleville. Katzenbach to escort Vivian Malone and James A. Hood as they enrolled in the University of Alabama, where Governor George Wallace attempted to block their attendance. That night, President Kennedy delivered a speech calling Civil Rights "a moral issue," a phrasing that his brother had urged him to use.
Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice and collaborated with President Kennedy when he proposed the most far-reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed after President Kennedy was slain on November 22, 1963. As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy had in many ways served as the administration's spokesman of the law, and he was instrumental in persuading Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to support the bill, ensuring the civil right supporters could overcome the Southern Democrats' filibuster.
Robert Kennedy was not only President Kennedy's Attorney General, he was also his closest advisor and confidant. As a result of this unique relationship, the Attorney General played a key role in several critical foreign policy decisions. During the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, he worked closely with the Kennedy Administration to develop the strategy of blockading Cuba instead of invading it, thereby averting nuclear war. Robert was especially instrumental in negotiations with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, on removal of the weapons.
Soon after President Kennedy's death, Robert Kennedy resigned as Attorney General and, in 1964, ran for the United States Senate from New York. His opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, labeled Kennedy a "carpetbagger" during the closely contested campaign. Kennedy responded to the attacks with humor. "I have [had] really two choices over the period of the last ten months," he said at Columbia University. "I could have stayed in - I could have retired. And I - my father has done very well and I could have lived off him. I tell you frankly I don't need this title because I [could] be called General, I understand, for the rest of my life. And I don't need the money and I don't need the office space. Frank as it is - and maybe it's difficult to believe in the state of New York - I'd like to just be a good United States Senator. I'd like to serve." Kennedy waged an effective statewide campaign and, aided by President Lyndon Johnson's landslide, won the November 1964 election by 719,000 votes.
As dedicated as he was to the pursuit of justice at home, Robert Kennedy was also committed to the advancement of human rights abroad. He traveled to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa to share his belief that all people have a basic human right to participate in the political decisions that affect their lives and to criticize their government without fear of reprisal. He also believed that those who strike out against injustice show the highest form of courage. In June of 1966 he traveled to South Africa, and delivered what is considered to be one of his greatest speeches, at the University of Cape Town. The "Ripple of Hope" paragraph in his Day of Affirmation address remains one of the most quoted in American politics.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
As New York's Senator, Robert initiated a number of projects in the state, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation's first community-development nonprofit, to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn. Now in its 32nd year, this innovative partnership between the federal government, private enterprise, and the neighborhood's residents and leaders remains a model for communities all across the nation.
These programs were part of a larger effort to address the needs of the dispossessed and powerless in America - the poor, the young, racial minorities, and Native Americans. He sought to bring the facts about poverty to the conscience of the American people, journeying into urban ghettos, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and migrant workers' camps. "There are children in the Mississippi Delta," he said, "whose bellies are swollen with hunger ... Many of them cannot go to school because they have no clothes or shoes. These conditions are not confined to rural Mississippi. They exist in dark tenements in Washington, D.C., within sight of the Capitol, in Harlem, in South Side Chicago, in Watts. There are children in each of these areas who have never been to school, never seen a doctor or a dentist. There are children who have never heard conversation in their homes, never read or even seen a book."
He sought to remedy the problems of poverty through legislation to encourage private industry to locate in poverty-stricken areas, thus creating jobs for the unemployed and stressed the importance of work over welfare. In March of 1968 he traveled to Delano, California to break bread with United Farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez, who was ending a 25-day fast to draw attention to the conditions facing migrant farmworkers in California.
Kennedy was also absorbed during his Senate years by a quest to end the war in Vietnam. He called for a greater commitment to a negotiated settlement and a renewed emphasis on economic and political advancement within South Vietnam. As the war continued to widen and America's involvement deepened, Senator Kennedy came to have serious misgivings about President Johnson's conduct of the war. Kennedy publicly broke with the Johnson Administration for the first time in February 1966, proposing participation by all sides (including the Vietcong's political arm, the National Liberation Front) in the political life of South Vietnam. The following year, he took responsibility for his role in the Kennedy Administration's policy in the Southeast Asia, and urged President Johnson to cease the bombing of North Vietnam and reduce, rather than enlarge, the war effort. In his final Senate speech on Vietnam, Kennedy said, "Are we like the God of the Old Testament that we can decide, in Washington, D.C., what cities, what towns, what hamlets in Vietnam are going to be destroyed? ... Do we have to accept that? ... I do not think we have to. I think we can do something about it."
On March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy's campaign was, "an uproarious campaign, filled with enthusiasm and fun ... It was also a campaign moving in its sweep and passion." Indeed, he challenged the complacent in American society and sought to bridge the great divides in American life - between the races, between the poor and the more affluent, between young and old, between order and dissent. His 1968 campaign brought hope to an American people troubled by discontent and violence at home and the overseas conflict in Vietnam. He won critical primaries in Indiana and Nebraska and spoke to enthusiastic crowds across the nation.
In April of 1968, Robert delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history, in the form of an impromptu eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been murdered earlier in the day. Speaking to a mostly Black crowd in Indianapolis that had not yet learned of Dr. King’s death, Kennedy said: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”