Kennedy, Robert F. Attorney General. 18" x 25". 2016. Collection of Kerry Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. New York, NY.
American politician Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was the third son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, the heads of a wealthy and socially-established family. He was a fiercely moralistic and driven individual who served in numerous American government offices. His career was devoted to civil rights and advocacy for the laborers and marginalized populations of America.
He was both lauded and criticized for his impassioned and blunt approach, particularly throughout the hearings against the Teamsters and during his time on the Senate. He admitted to having a bad temper, but maintained that it came from a desire for a virtuous, harmless world that left little room for patience. Robert Kennedy was often described as, “America's most compassionate public figure, the only person who could save a divided country." Fearless, astringent dedication would serve him to fight for direly needed equality, humanism, civil rights, and peace.
Growing Up with the Kennedy Family
Bobby was the youngest and smallest of three brothers. From a young age, he was dismissed by his father in favor of his older brothers, Joseph and John. Eclipsed by their roles in their father’s ambitions, Bobby was left mostly to his mother’s care, but remained obliged to support Kennedy projects. However, some believe staying in peripheral this way was an advantage and enabled him to form an identity outside of the Kennedy dream.
Robert “Bobby” Kennedy (1925 – 1968)
The tenuous father-son relationship, his closeness with his mother, and the highly competitive Kennedy family culture impacted Bobby deeply. These were likely proponents of his trademark tough, persistent, but unpredictable personality that surrounded a fiercely loving and sensitive heart. He adopted his mother’s consciousness of devout Catholic religiosity and was influenced by Ancient Greek poets. Aeschylus' writings in particular consoled him in the wake of John's assassination.
The Kennedy family culture revolved around politics and current affairs, and heavily emphasized the importance of success. Combined with his own strong determination, the Kennedy mindset cultivated in Bobby what authors and friends describe as a personality of fixation and relentlessness. It drove his fiery battles against Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters union, his work in Civil Rights advocacy and desegregation, and his counter-administrative desire for peace and non-violent resolution to the Vietnam War.
Education and Military Career
A number of secondary schools and service in the United States Naval Reserve as a Seaman Apprentice prepared Bobby to enter Harvard’s Navy College Training Program in 1944, the same year his brother Joseph died. In 1946, he served on Joseph’s namesake ship, the destroyer ISS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. He graduated from Harvard in 1948 with a bachelor's degree in political science and received a specialized V-12 degree from Bates College. Soon after, he became a Boston Post correspondent and travelled with a fellow graduate on a six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East on the RMS Queen Mary, where he wrote critically about British involvement in Palestine. Upon returning to the United States, Bobby entered the University Of Virginia Law School. During his studies, he married Ethel Skakel. Shortly after his graduation in 1951, they welcomed their first child, Kathleen, into the world.
Throughout his education and his professional career, Bobby was playful, but never quite fit in. He resisted conformation despite the social and political consequences, caring only for what he believed was correct, virtuous, and fair. Academically, he was not known for excellence, but his school friend David Hackett reflected on Bobby’s characteristic Kennedy determination to "bypass his shortcomings [and redouble] his efforts whenever something did not come easy to him.”
After Joseph’s death in wartime service, his eldest brother John or JFK was left to fulfill his father’s dream for a Kennedy to become president and Bobby stepped into the supporting role. After working as a lawyer in Washington D.C. for the Internal Security Section of U.S. Department of Justice and prosecuting fraud cases in Brooklyn, Bobby put his own projects on hold to become manager for JFK’s Senatorial campaign. Their 1952 success was due in great part to Bobby’s enthusiasm and helped to pave the way for JFK's presidential candidacy.In 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a family friend, appointed Bobby as assistant counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he became heavily involved with the McCarthy hearings. He later assisted the Hoover Commission and returned to the Senate as the Democratic minority’s chief counsel in 1954. His work earned him a place on the Chamber of Commerce’s list of Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954.
After helping to manage Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign in 1956, Bobby was appointed to the Senate Labour Rackets Committee, where he held authority over the prosecution of corrupt labour unions, organized crime, and the Teamsters union. It was during this time that he gained international renown for what is described as his incessant battle against the Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. He was a key supervisor of federal activities relating to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and...was considered central to the prevention of nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Russia.
Kennedy, Robert F. 22" x 30". 2012. Collection of Sam Davis. Davis Saperstein Salomon.Teaneck, NJ.
With JFK’s decision to run for presidency in 1960, Bobby was once again obligated to leave his appointments and serve as campaign manager. He ran a successful, passionate, detailed campaign against Lyndon Johnson, later JFK's vice president, with whom he developed a hostile relationship. With JFK’s election, Bobby was appointed Attorney General, a highly controversial position because of his range of influence in all departments, what was considered lack of qualification, and the blurred line between the personal and professional in relation to his brother. In spite of divisive opinions, he became a tireless “executive overseer, controller of patronage, chief adviser, and brother protector," as well as JFK's closest political counsel.
Not a department or area of policy escaped his influence and he held more widespread power in the White House than any preceding official. Together, Bobby and JFK made the most powerful office in history.
As Attorney General, JFK also reopened his work on organized crime. After many successful convictions, he persuaded FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover to turn from the fight against communism and towards issues of union corruption. He was also involved in preventing U.S. Steel price increases, influenced death penalty politics, and relentlessly strategized for humane resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was a key supervisor of federal activities relating to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and because of his central role in Operation Mongoose, he was considered central to the prevention of nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Russia.
Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
Bobby’s freedom, unconventionality, and unpredictability, however, caused conflictual relationships with officials such as Hoover and Johnson. But this freedom and persistence paved the way to his role as administrative voice for human rights and the Civil Rights Movement. Bobby persisted on an independent agenda and his eventual movement into racial politics transformed his life and purpose.
He was heavily involved in protecting the Freedom Riders and securing Martin Luther King Jr.’s release from an Atlanta prison. While these experiences proved a harsh wakeup call to the struggles which people of color faced, the events only fueled his tremendous dedication to their cause. Because many officials in the government viewed Martin Luther King, Jr., as an enemy of the state, the complex relationship which soon developed between them set the Attorney General apart from other government officials.
Bobby’s work in civil rights activism was particularly evident in his fight for school desegregation in the case of James Meredith and the University of Mississippi. Using the force of Federal Troops and U.S. Marshalls, he ensured the student’s admission and managed the ensuing race riots.
After the Assassination
After JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Bobby continued under the Johnson administration until his 1964 election to Senator for the New York State Democratic Committee. There, he worked closely with his brother Ted, who helped him adjust to an environment of collaborative lawmaking, but maintained what is remembered as a bluntness of speech that had the power to unify and “cut through social boundaries and partisan divides."
Bobby continued a passionate crusade for civil and human rights, the welfare of marginalized populations, and the resolution for the socio-economic crisis. He advocated for gun control, encouraged Anti-Nuclear War preventative policies, and created Special Impact projects that included housing redevelopment in impoverished areas of Brooklyn. The Poor People's campaign of the Civil Rights Movement emerged from Bobby's relationship with King.
Bobby’s work and heart poured into the inner cities, reached to the impoverished, the minorities, and the marginalized. Hope, compassion, and mutual respect defined his relationship with these communities. This is best remembered by the events after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, where Bobby’s speech given in the Indianapolis inner city fostered the only centre of peaceful reflection among 60 rioting cities.
He advocated for gun control...and created Special Impact projects that included housing redevelopment in impoverished areas of Brooklyn.In 1968, after much contemplation, Bobby decided to run in the Presidential Election on a platform for unification, one continuous with his "commitment to racial equality [that extended a] firm sense of social justice to all areas of national life, and into matters of foreign and economic policy." His sweeping victory over Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 California Primary was Bobby’s final living impact. In the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen, he was fatally shot.
A Lasting Impact
We remember Bobby as a powerful and transformative figure in America’s movement for justice and the alleviation of racial and social inequality. Straddling the space between the highest national administrative power and ground-level movements, his work began to create dialogue amongst contradicting views on equality, race, policy; overlaps that would have birthed new and unified social understanding. As stated during his candidacy, "I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can.”
His life of passionate determination ended at a pivotal moment of international influence. We can only imagine the kind of world that his forcefully loving, moral heart would have created. But he did leave the world with a certain vision for hope and peace, one birthed from the unification of many voices, and his memory fuels the determination to create such a world.