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Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

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Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Photographic portrait of Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy
LocationAmbassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California, United States
Coordinates34°03′35″N 118°17′50″W / 34.0597°N 118.2971°W / 34.0597; -118.2971Coordinates: 34°03′35″N 118°17′50″W / 34.0597°N 118.2971°W / 34.0597; -118.2971
DateJune 5, 1968; 54 years ago (1968-06-05)
12:15 a.m. (UTC−7)
TargetRobert F. Kennedy (died on June 6, 1968, from injuries)
Attack type
Political assassination
WeaponsIver Johnson .22 revolver
InjuredPaul Schrade, William Weisel, Elizabeth Evans, Ira Goldstein, Irwin Stroll
PerpetratorSirhan Sirhan

On June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan shortly after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. PDT the following day.

Kennedy was a senator from New York and a candidate in the 1968 Democratic Party presidential primaries. On June 4, 1968, he won the California and South Dakota primary elections. He addressed his campaign supporters in the Ambassador Hotel's Embassy Room ballroom; shortly after leaving the podium and exiting through a kitchen hallway, he was mortally wounded by multiple shots fired by Sirhan. Kennedy died at Good Samaritan Hospital nearly 26 hours later. His body was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near his brother John F. Kennedy's grave.

Sirhan was a Palestinian who held strong anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian beliefs. In 1969, he testified that he killed Kennedy "with 20 years of malice aforethought";[1] he was convicted and sentenced to death. Due to the court case People v. Anderson, in 1972, his sentence was commuted to life in prison with a possibility of parole. As of January 2022, his parole request has been denied 16 times.

Kennedy's assassination prompted the Secret Service to protect presidential candidates. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee but ultimately lost the election to Republican candidate Richard Nixon. Kennedy's assassination has led to several conspiracy theories. No credible evidence has emerged that Sirhan was not the shooter, or that he did not act alone. It has been described as one of four major assassinations in the United States that occurred during the 1960s.

Background

A black-and-white image of Kennedy speaking in a microphone
Kennedy campaigns in Los Angeles, 1968 (photo by Evan Freed)

Robert F. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1925.[2] In 1948, he visited Palestine and wrote six dispatches for The Boston Post.[3][4] He dismissed the possibility of the Jewish state becoming communist as "fantastically absurd",[5] and called it the "only remaining stabilizing factor in the near and far".[6] In 1960, John F. Kennedy, his elder brother, was elected the president of the United States.[7] He appointed Robert as the attorney general. During his tenure, Robert served as John's close advisor[8] and was associated with various decisions during the Kennedy administration.[2] According to author Matthew A. Hayes, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert acted as a "de-facto Chief of Staff, Presidential Agent and Intermediary for his brother" and was an "indispensable partner" in its successful resolution.[9] In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas;[10] Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency.[11] Johnson retained almost all prominent Kennedy advisors, including Robert as attorney general.[2][11] Robert was deeply affected by his brother's assassination.[12][13] Despite his political differences with Johnson, he remained in the cabinet.[2]

In 1964, polls showed that various Democrats wanted Kennedy to be Johnson's running mate in the presidential election.[14] Kennedy instead organized his senatorial campaign in New York,[15] challenging Kenneth Keating, an incumbent Republican senator.[16] During a campaign speech, Kennedy declared his support for Israel, stating that in the event of an attack, "we will stand by Israel and come to her assistance".[17] He won the election; during his congressional career, he supported civil rights and opposed Johnson's policies during the Vietnam War.[2]

The 1968 presidential campaign has been referred to as one of the most volatile campaigns in American history;[18] there was opposition to the ongoing Vietnam War. It also was a period of social unrest with riots in major cities.[19] Allard K. Lowenstein, a Democratic politician, organized a "Dump Johnson" movement to prevent Johnson's nomination as the presidential nominee,[20] and asked Kennedy to run instead. Kennedy refused, asserting that he did not want to split the Democratic Party for his benefit.[2] Eugene McCarthy, a senator from Minnesota, emerged as the leader of the "Dump Johnson" movement and entered several state presidential primaries.[21] In late January 1968, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in the view of historian Lloyd Gardner, "shattered hopes that the war could be won within a reasonable period of time—if ever—and broke open the cracks in the Democratic coalition".[22]

On March 12, 1968, in the New Hampshire Democratic primary election, McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson[23] with 42 percent to Johnson's 49 percent of the votes.[21] Four days later, Kennedy announced his presidential campaign.[24] On March 31, a few days before the Wisconsin primary, Johnson announced that he would not seek the presidency.[25] Four days later, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, leading to further riots in several cities.[26] The same day, Kennedy gave a speech in Indianapolis, Indiana,[27] saying:

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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black. ... let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.[28]

In April, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy for the presidency. He mostly avoided primaries and focused on states which held caucuses. Contrary to Kennedy, Humphrey supported the Vietnam War.[29]

Assassination

California primary and shooting

Refer to the caption
Kennedy addressing supporters in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel

The California presidential primary elections were held on June 4, 1968. Polls by CBS showed Kennedy leading by 7 percent.[30] The statewide results gave Kennedy 46 percent to McCarthy's 42 percent. Around four hours after the polls closed in California, Kennedy claimed victory. He was in second place with 393 delegates, against Humphrey's 561 delegates.[31] Kennedy also won the South Dakota primary, winning approximately 50 percent of the vote.[32] Author Joseph Palermo referred to the victory as Kennedy's "greatest".[33]

At approximately 00:02 a.m. PDT[34] the next day, Kennedy addressed his campaign supporters in the Ambassador Hotel's Embassy Room ballroom in the Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles.[35] The government did not provide Secret Service protection for presidential candidates.[36] Kennedy's only security personnel was former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent William Barry and two unofficial bodyguards: Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson[37] and former football player Rosey Grier.[38] At approximately 00:15 a.m., concluding his victory speech, Kennedy said: "So my thanks to all of you and on to Chicago and let's win there."[39] Kennedy planned to walk through the ballroom after speaking on his way to another gathering of supporters.[40] Reporters wanted a press conference; campaign aide Fred Dutton decided that Kennedy would forgo the second gathering and instead go through the hotel's kitchen and pantry area behind the ballroom to the press area. Kennedy had welcomed contact with the public during the campaign, and people had often tried to touch him in excitement.[41] Soon after Kennedy concluded the speech, he started to exit when Barry stopped him and said, "No, it's been changed. We're going this way."[42] Barry and Dutton began clearing a way for Kennedy to go left through swinging doors to the kitchen corridor, but he was hemmed in by the crowd and followed maître d'hôtel Karl Uecker through a back exit.[42] Uecker led Kennedy through the kitchen area, holding his right wrist, but frequently releasing it as Kennedy shook hands with people whom he encountered.[43] Uecker and Kennedy started down a passageway narrowed by an ice machine against the right wall and a steam table to the left.[43]

Kennedy turned to his left and shook hands with Juan Romero,[44][45] just as Sirhan Sirhan stepped down from a low tray-stacker beside the ice-machine, rushed past Uecker, and repeatedly fired an eight-shot .22 Long Rifle caliber Iver Johnson Cadet 55-A revolver[46] at point-blank range.[47] Kennedy fell to the floor; Barry hit Sirhan twice in the face while others, including writer George Plimpton and Grier, forced him against the steam table and disarmed him, as he continued firing his gun in random directions. Five other people were wounded: William Weisel of ABC News, Paul Schrade of the United Automobile Workers union, Democratic Party activist Elizabeth Evans, Ira Goldstein of the Continental News Service, and Kennedy campaign volunteer Irwin Stroll.[48] A minute later, Sirhan wrestled free and grabbed the revolver again, but all the bullets had already been fired and he was subdued.[49] Barry went to Kennedy and placed his jacket under Kennedy's head.[49] Reporters and photographers rushed into the area. As Kennedy lay wounded, Romero cradled his head and placed a rosary in his hand.[50] Kennedy asked Romero, "Is everybody OK?"; Romero responded, "Yes, everybody's OK." Kennedy then turned away and said, "Everything's going to be OK."[51] The moment was captured by Life photographer Bill Eppridge and Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times and became the iconic image of the assassination.[52]

Immediate aftermath and death

Refer to the caption
Robert F. Kennedy lies mortally wounded on the floor immediately after the shooting. Kneeling beside him is 17-year-old busboy Juan Romero, who was shaking Kennedy's hand when Sirhan Sirhan fired the shots.[53]

As the shooting took place, ABC News was signing off from its electoral broadcast, while the CBS coverage had been concluded.[54] CBS re-began its coverage of the assassination 21 minutes after the shooting. The reporters present to report Kennedy's victory ended up crowding into the kitchen where he had been shot and the immediate aftermath was captured only by audio recording and cameras that had no live transmission capability.[48] ABC was able to show scant live footage from the kitchen after Kennedy had been transported, but all of ABC's coverage from the hotel was in black-and-white.[55] CBS and NBC shot footage in the kitchen of the shooting's aftermath on color film, which had not been broadcast until it was developed two hours after the incident. Los Angeles CBS radio affiliate KNX (AM) interrupted its rundown of local primary returns to provide coverage of the shooting.[54]

Kennedy's wife Ethel was three months pregnant;[56] she stood outside the scene.[51] She was soon led to Kennedy and knelt beside him. He turned his head and seemed to recognize her.[57] Smith promptly appeared on television and asked for a doctor.[58] After several minutes, medical attendants arrived and lifted Kennedy onto a stretcher, prompting him to whisper, "Don't lift me", which were his last words;[59][60] he lost consciousness shortly after.[61] He was taken 1 mile (1.6 km) away to Central Receiving Hospital. A doctor slapped his face, calling, "Bob, Bob", while another doctor massaged his heart.[62] After obtaining a good heartbeat, doctors handed a stethoscope to Ethel so that she could hear his heart beating.[51] After about 30 minutes, Kennedy was transferred several blocks to the Good Samaritan Hospital to undergo surgery. A gymnasium near the hospital was set up as temporary headquarters for the press and news media to receive updates on his condition. Surgery began at 3:12 a.m. and lasted approximately 3 hours and 40 minutes.[63] At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, spokesman Frank Mankiewicz announced that Kennedy's doctors were "concerned over his continuing failure to show improvement"; his condition remained critical to life.[64]

Kennedy was shot three times. One bullet was fired at a range of 1 inch (3 cm) that entered behind his right ear, dispersing fragments throughout his brain.[65] The other two entered at the rear of his right armpit; one exited from his chest and the other lodged in the back of his neck.[66] Despite extensive neurosurgery to remove the bullet and bone fragments from his brain, he was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, nearly 26 hours after the shooting.[62] Mankiewicz left the hospital and walked to the gymnasium where the press and news media were set up for continuous updates on the situation. At 2 a.m. on June 6, Mankiewicz announced Kennedy's death.[67] The following week, NBC devoted 55 hours to the shooting and aftermath, ABC 43 hours, and CBS 42 hours, with all three networks initially pre-empting their regular coverage and advertisements to cover the story.[54]

Funeral and aftermath

Grave of Robert F. Kennedy. A cross with few flowers can be seen.
Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery

Following Kennedy's autopsy on June 6, his remains were taken to Manhattan, where his casket was viewed by thousands at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The funeral mass was held on the morning of June 8.[68] Kennedy's younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, delivered the eulogy, saying:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it ... As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."[69]

Kennedy's body was transported via train to Washington, D.C.; thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations, paying their respects.[70] On the way to the cemetery, the funeral procession passed through Resurrection City, a shantytown protest set up as part of the Poor People's Campaign.[71] The procession stopped in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where residents of Resurrection City joined the group, and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung.[72] Kennedy was buried near his older brother John in the Arlington National Cemetery. His was the first burial to have ever taken place there at night.[68][70] After the assassination, Congress altered the Secret Service's mandate to include protection for presidential candidates.[73]

At the time of his death, Kennedy was substantially behind Humphrey in convention delegate support,[74] but many believe that following his victory in the California primary, he would have ultimately secured the nomination.[75][76] Humphrey won the nomination at the convention in Chicago at which violence in the streets occurred. He ultimately lost the general election to Republican candidate Richard Nixon by a narrow popular vote margin of 0.7 percent. Nixon won by a more decisive 301–191 margin in the electoral vote.[77]

Perpetrator

Black-and-white photographic portrait of Sirhan Sirhan taken after his arrest
Mugshot of the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, taken after his arrest.

Sirhan Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944, in Jerusalem, Palestine, in an Arab Christian family.[78] When he was four years old, he and his father narrowly escaped a bomb explosion during the 1947–1949 Palestine war.[79] This incident, according to author Mel Ayton, "had a psychological effect on young Sirhan".[80] He witnessed various other violent incidents during his childhood, including physical abuse by his father and the death of his older brother by a Zionist truck that was trying to avoid sniper fire. In late 1956, Sirhan, along with his family, immigrated to the United States.[81] He opposed immigration, saying that he knew that "the US was against the Arabs and was friendly with Israel, and a friend of my enemy is my enemy".[82] Once in the United States, Sirhan received above-average grades and joined the officer cadet corps.[81] During his late-teenage years, Sirhan's father abandoned the family,[83] his sister died, two of his brothers were arrested, and he was expelled from Pasadena City College.[81] Sirhan held strongly anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian beliefs.[84]

In 1966, while pursuing a career as a jockey, he fell from a running horse,[81] suffering minor injuries. A friend of Sirhan said that after this incident, Sirhan was "impatient, nervous, emotional and always in a hurry".[85] A diary was found during a search of his home, where he wrote on May 18: "Robert Kennedy must be assassinated ... My determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more and more of an unshakable obsession. RFK must die. RFK must be killed."[86][87][17]

Investigation and trial

Due to Sirhan being a non-citizen, it was illegal under California law for him to purchase firearms.[88] He violated three California laws by possessing the pistol he used to kill Kennedy.[88] It has been suggested that the date of the assassination is significant because it was the first anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.[89]

Photographic portrait of William F. Pepper
Sirhan's lawyer William F. Pepper

When Sirhan was booked by police, they found a newspaper article in his pocket that discussed Kennedy's support for Israel; Sirhan testified at his trial that he began to hate Kennedy after learning of this support.[90] Sirhan was convicted of Kennedy's murder on April 17, 1969,[47] and was sentenced to death six days later.[91] In 1972, the sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole after the California Supreme Court invalidated all pending death sentences that were imposed before 1972 as unconstitutional, due to its ruling in California v. Anderson.[92][93] Prison officers said in 1975 that Sirhan would be freed on parole in 1986. In 1982, however, the California Board of Prison Term rescinded the parole date citing death threats made by Sirhan from the prison.[94] In 1989, Sirhan told David Frost in prison that his sole connection with Kennedy was "[Kennedy's] support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians."[95] The interpretation that Sirhan was motivated by Middle Eastern politics has been criticized as an oversimplification that ignores his psychological problems.[96] Sirhan's lawyers attempted to use a defense of diminished responsibility during the trial,[97] while Sirhan himself tried to confess to the crime and change his plea to guilty on several occasions.[1] He testified that he had killed Kennedy "with 20 years of malice aforethought".[1] As of 2022, Sirhan has been denied parole 16 times.[98] His lawyers have claimed that he was framed, and he claims to have no memory of his crime.[93][99]

In February 2012, Sirhan's lawyers William F. Pepper and Laurie Dusek filed a court brief in District Court in Los Angeles claiming that a second gunman fired the shots that killed Kennedy. It was the fourth and final in a series of federal briefs filed under habeas corpus by Pepper and Dusek beginning in October 2010.[100] Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell denied the petition in 2015.[101] During Sirhan's 2016 parole hearing, Paul Schrade, who was shot and wounded on the assassination night, asserted that fatal shots to Kennedy were shot by a different shooter. He claimed that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) destroyed evidence, "hid ballistic evidence exonerating Sirhan, and covered up conclusive evidence that a second gunman fatally wounded Robert Kennedy."[102] In August 2021, two of Kennedy's children, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Harriman Kennedy, supported Sirhan's parole, while many others disagreed.[103] The same month, the California state parole panel recommended Sirhan's parole.[104] Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, denied the parole in January 2022, asserting in an opinion piece for Los Angeles Times that "Sirhan has not developed the accountability and insight required to support his safe release into the community."[105]

Conspiracy theories

CIA involvement hypothesis

In November 2006, the BBC's Newsnight program presented research by filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan alleging that several Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers were present on the night of the assassination.[106] The three men who appear in films and photographs from the night of the assassination were identified by former colleagues and associates as former senior CIA officers who had worked together in 1963 at JMWAVE, the CIA's main anti-Castro station based in Miami. They were JMWAVE Chief of Operations David Morales, Chief of Maritime Operations Gordon Campbell, and Chief of Psychological Warfare Operations George Joannides.[106][107] Several people who had known Morales were sure that he was not the man claimed by O'Sullivan. After O'Sullivan published his book, assassination researchers Jefferson Morley and David Talbot also discovered that Campbell had died of a heart attack in 1962, six years before Kennedy's assassination. In response, O'Sullivan stated that the man on the video may have used Campbell's name as an alias. O'Sullivan stood by his allegations stating that the Bulova watch company was a "well-known CIA cover".[108]

Second gunman hypothesis

The location of Kennedy's wounds suggested that his assailant had stood behind him, while some witnesses assert that Sirhan faced west as Kennedy moved through the pantry facing east.[109] This has led to the suggestion that a second gunman fired the fatal shot, a possibility supported by Thomas Noguchi, the Chief Medical Examiner and Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, who stated that the fatal shot was behind Kennedy's right ear and had been fired at a distance of approximately 1 inch (2.5 centimeters).[110] Other witnesses said that Kennedy was turning to his left shaking hands as Sirhan approached, facing north and so exposing his right side.[111]

During a re-examination of the case in 1975, the Supreme Court ordered an expert examination of the possibility of a second gun having been used, and the experts concluded that there was little or no evidence to support this hypothesis.[111] The Pruszynski recording was published in 2004 by CNN's Brad Johnson; its existence had been unknown to the general public previously.[112] In 2007, it was revealed that forensic expert Philip Van Praag had analyzed an audiotape of the shooting known as the Pruszynski recording in which Van Praag had discovered acoustic evidence that a second gun had been involved in the assassination. Van Praag found that 13 shots were fired even though Sirhan's gun held only eight rounds.[109] Van Praag states the recording also reveals at least two cases where the timing between shots was shorter than physically possible from Sirhan's gun alone. Forensic audio specialists Wes Dooley and Paul Pegas of Audio Engineering Associates in Pasadena examined Van Praag's findings and corroborated the presence of at least 10 shots on the tape along with an over-lapping shot. [113] Other acoustic experts have claimed that they could find no more than eight shots recorded on the audiotape.[114] In 2008, eyewitness John Pilger asserted his belief that there must have been a second gunman.[115]

Legacy

Kennedy's assassination was one of the four major assassinations in the 1960s, the other three include the assassination of John F. Kennedy (1963), the assassination of Malcolm X (1965), and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968).[116] Some scholars view the assassination as one of the first major incidents of political violence in the United States stemming from the Arab–Israeli conflict in the Middle East.[117] Juan Romero, the busboy who shook hands with Kennedy right before he was shot, later said, "It made me realize that no matter how much hope you have it can be taken away in a second."[118] Kennedy's blood-stained shirt, tie, and jacket are now in the possession of the Los Angeles County District Attorney. A controversy occurred in 2010 when Kennedy's clothing was transported to the California Homicide Investigators Association conference in Las Vegas, where they were included in a temporary public display. Max Kennedy called it a "cheap bid for attention." The items and Kennedy's clothing were subsequently removed from the exhibit, with the LAPD apologizing to the Kennedy family.[119][120]

Until 1987, the LAPD retained the original files, reports, transcripts, fragments of the bullets that struck Kennedy and the four other bystanders in the kitchen pantry, the .22 caliber Iver-Johnson handgun used by Sirhan, Kennedy's blood-stained clothes, and other artifacts related to the assassination. In 1987, the LAPD donated the entire evidence collection (except for Kennedy's clothes) to the California State Archives in Sacramento for permanent preservation.[121] The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archives of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (known as the Southeastern Massachusetts University before 1991) also contains a large collection of materials on the assassination.[122]

See also

References

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Works cited

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Further reading

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