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Robert F. Kennedy: A Civil Rights Hero

Appointed the U.S. Attorney General after his brother John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960, Robert Kennedy fought organised crime and worked for civil rights for African Americans during his time in office.

In the Senate, he became a committed advocate of the poor and racial minorities, and opposed the escalation of the Vietnam War. In 2016 Robert Kennedy was called “the most trusted white man in Black America” by Politico, yet he died a violent death, just like his brother, aged just 42.

Beginnings

Born on 20 November 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Robert Francis Kennedy was the seventh of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a wealthy financier, and Rose Kennedy, the daughter of a Boston politician.

Kennedy spent his childhood between his family’s homes in New York, Massachusetts and Florida, as well as London, where his father was American ambassador from 1938 to 1940.

He then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and later attended Harvard Law School after the war, going on to serve as chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field. He gained national attention for investigating corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a powerful trade union led by Jimmy Hoffa.

Attorney General

After his brother John was elected president in November 1960, Robert became America’s 64th Attorney General.

In this role, he continued to battle corruption in labour unions, as well as mobsters and organised crime, but he also supported the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans. 

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."

In May 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, he ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregation in interstate bus terminals.

In autumn 1962, he then sent thousands of federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court order admitting the first black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. 

The state’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, had attempted to bar Meredith, whose enrolment prompted riots and violence at the school. The riot that had followed Meredith's registration at Ole Miss left two dead and hundreds injured. 

In June 1963, Kennedy 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.

Kennedy also worked with his brother, as well as his successor as president, Lyndon B. Johnson, on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, employment and public facilities.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963, Robert Kennedy stayed on as attorney general under President Johnson for almost another year.

Senator

In September 1964, he resigned to campaign for New York in the U.S. Senate, winning he election.

As senator, Kennedy championed civil rights and social justice issues. He traveled to Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, migrant workers’ camps and urban ghettos to study the effects of poverty, and made trips abroad to such places as apartheid-ruled South Africa to advocate for the advancement of human rights. 

At that trip in June 1966, he 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 wall of oppression and resistance.”

Kennedy was also an outspoken critic of President Johnson’s plans to escalate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Assassination

In 1968, Kennedy was urged by his supporters to run for president as an antiwar and socially progressive Democrat.

In the early hours of 5 June 1968, shortly after delivering a speech to celebrate his win in the California primary, Kennedy was shot in a kitchen corridor outside the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next day at age 42.