Robert Francis Kennedy, the son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1925. His great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had emigrated from Ireland in 1849 and his grandfathers, Patrick Joseph Kennedy and John Francis Fitzgerald, were important political figures in Boston. Kennedy's father was a highly successful businessman who later served as ambassador to Great Britain (1937-40).
Kennedy went to Harvard University but his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. In November 1944 he joined the United States Navy but the war finished before he was called into action. He returned to Harvard and graduated in 1948. This was followed by a law degree from the University of Virginia.
In 1950 Kennedy married Ethel Shakel and their first child, Kathleen, was born on 4th July, 1951. Joe McCarthy, the controversial senator from Wisconsin, was asked to be the child's godfather. Over the next few years Ethel gave birth to eleven children.
In 1951 Kennedy joined the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice but resigned the following year to help his brother, John F. Kennedy, in his successful campaign to be elected to the Senate. Kennedy returned to legal work in 1953 when Joe McCarthy appointed him as one of the 15 assistant counsels to the Senate subcommittee on investigations.
Kennedy's first task was to research Western trade with China. He discovered that Western European countries accounted for around 75 per cent of all ships delivering cargo to China. In an interview with the Boston Post Kennedy argued that: "it just didn't make sense to anybody in this country that our major allies, whom we're aiding financially, should trade with the communists who are killing GIs".
In a speech in the Senate Joe McCarthy praised Kennedy's research. He also controversially called for the United States Navy "to sink every accursed ship carrying materials to the enemy and resulting in the death of American boys, regardless of what flag those ships may fly."
On 29th July, 1953, Kennedy resigned from McCarthy's office. There is some dispute about why he took this action. In his book, The Enemy Within, Kennedy claimed he resigned because he "disagreed with the way that the Committee was being run". However, other accounts suggest that it was the result of a dispute with Roy Cohn. When McCarthy supported Cohn in the dispute, Kennedy resigned.
In 1954, after the demise of Joe McCarthy, Kennedy rejoined the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations. The following year he became chief counsel and staff director and in 1957 was appointed as head of the team investigating the Trade Union movement. Kennedy emerged as a national figure when his investigation of James Hoffa was televised.
Hoffa was eventually charged with corruption. Kennedy claimed that Hoffa had misappropriated $9.5 million in union funds and had corruptly done deals with employers. However, the jury found Hoffa not guilty. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, did not agree with the verdict and Hoffa and the Teamsters Union were expelled from the association.
When John F. Kennedy was elected he appointed his brother as U.S. Attorney General. The first issue he had to deal with was civil rights. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides in an attempt to bring an end to segregation in transport. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South.
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Governor James Patterson commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body."
The Freedom Riders were split between two buses. They travelled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reached Anniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
The surviving bus travelled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included John Lewis, James Zwerg, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg later recalled: "My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing." Zwerg wrote a letter to his parents that stated that he would probably be dead by the time they received it.
During the Freedom Riders campaign Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders.
Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to negotiate with Governor James Patterson of Alabama. Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, later pointed out: "Seigenthaler arrived in time to escort the first group of wounded and shaken riders from the bus terminal to the airport, and flew with them to safety in New Orleans."
The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery. One of the passengers, James Zwerg, later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage." Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died."
Some of the Freedom Riders, including seven women, ran for safety. The women approached an African-American taxicab driver and asked him to take them to the First Baptist Church. However, he was unwilling to violate Jim Crow restrictions by taking any white women. He agreed to take the five African-Americans, but the two white women, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, were left on the curb. They were then attacked by the white mob.
John Seigenthaler, who was driving past, stopped and got the two women in his car. According to Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders (2006): "Suddenly, two rough-looking men dressed in overalls blocked his path to the car door, demanding to know who the hell he was. Seigenthaler replied that he was a federal agent and that they had better not challenge his authority. Before he could say any more, a third man struck him in the back of the head with a pipe. Unconscious, he fell to the pavement, where he was kicked in the ribs by other members of the mob. Pushed under the rear bumper of the car, his battered and motionless body remained there until discovered by a reporter twenty-five minutes later."
Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, pointed out: "Seigenthaler went to the defense of a girl being beaten and was clubbed to the ground; he was kicked while he lay there unconscious for nearly half an hour. Again FBI agents present did nothing, except take notes." Robert Kennedy later reported: "I talked to John Seigenthaler in the hospital and said that I thought it was very helpful for the Negro vote, and that I appreciated what he had done."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.
Robert Kennedy was a close friend of Governor John Patterson of Alabama. Kennedy explained in his interview with Anthony Lewis: “I had this long relationship with John Patterson (the governor of Alabama). He was our great pal in the South. So he was doubly exercised at me – who was his friend and pal – to have involved him with suddenly surrounding this church with marshals and having marshals descend with no authority, he felt, on his cities… He couldn’t understand why the Kennedys were doing this to him.”
Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November. However, James Lawson, one of the Freedom Riders, argued: "We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change."
The two brothers worked closely together on a wide variety of issues including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the struggle to get Civil Rights legislation passed by Congress and the Vietnam War. Kennedy also attempted to tackle organized crime but found working with J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, difficult.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he worked briefly under Lyndon B. Johnson before resigning to begin his successful campaign to be elected to the Senate. As a New York senator, Kennedy was popular with young people and minority groups, but was distrusted by the business world.
On 3rd April, 1967, Martin Luther King. made a speech where he outlined the reasons why he was opposed to the Vietnam War. After he made this speech, the editor of The Nation, Carey McWilliams and the Socialist Party leader, Norman Thomas, urged King to run as a third-party presidential candidate in 1968.
William F. Pepper suggested that King should challenge Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. King rejected this idea but instead joined with Pepper to establish the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP). “From this platform, Dr King planned to move into mainstream politics as a potential candidate on a presidential ticket with Dr Benjamin Spock in order to highlight the anti-poverty, anti-war agenda.”
In June, 1967, J. Edgar Hoover had a meeting with fellow gambler, close friend, and Texas oil billionaire, H. L. Hunt in Chicago. Hunt was very concerned that the activities of King might unseat Lyndon B. Johnson. This could be an expensive defeat as Johnson doing a good job protecting the oil depletion allowance. According to William Pepper: “ Hoover said he thought a final solution was necessary. Only that action would stop King.”
It was King’s opposition to the Vietnam War that really upset J. Edgar Hoover. According to Richard N. Goodwin, Hoover told Lyndon B. Johnson that “Bobby Kennedy was hiring or paying King off to stir up trouble over the Vietnam War.” It is true that Robert Kennedy, like King, was growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Vietnam. Johnson became convinced that Kennedy was leaking information to the press about his feelings on the war. At a meeting on 6 th February, 1967, Johnson told Robert Kennedy: “I’ll destroy you and everyone one of your dove friends. You’ll be dead politically in six months.”
The following month Kennedy made a speech where he raised the issue of morality and the Vietnam War: “Although the world’s imperfection may call forth the act of war, righteousness cannot obscure the agony and pain those acts bring to a single child. It is we who live in abundance and send our young men out to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our bombs that level the villages. We are all participants.”
In an television interview later that year Kennedy again returned to the morality of the war: “We’re going in there and we’re killing South Vietnamese, we’re killing children, we’re killing women, we’re killing innocent people because we don’t want a war fought on American soil, or because (the Viet Cong are) 12,000 miles away and they might get 11,000 miles away. Do we have the right, here in the United States, to say we’re going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have, millions of people refugees, killing women and children, as we have.”
On 19th February, 1968, Cesar Chavez, the trade union leader, began a hunger strike in protest against the violence being used against his members in California. Robert F. Kennedy went to the San Joaquin Valley to give Chavez his support and told waiting reporters: “I am here out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time – Cesar Chavez. I congratulate all of you who are locked with Cesar in the struggle for justice for the farm worker and in the struggle for justice for Spanish-speaking Americans.”
Chavez was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Kennedy had begun to link the campaign against the war with the plight of the disadvantaged. Martin Luther King was following a similar path with his involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign. As William F. Pepper has pointed out: “If the wealthy, powerful interests across the nation would find Dr King’s escalating activity against the war intolerable, his planned mobilization of half a million poor people with the intention of laying siege to Congress could only engender outrage - and fear.”
On 16 th March, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies.” As Richard D. Mahoney points out in his book, Sons and Brothers: “If there was one reason why Bobby was running, it was to end America’s war in Vietnam…. Politically, however, this looked self-destructive. A substantial majority of Americans supported the president’s policy. The antiwar movement, though a significant new factor in American politics, was not yet a defining factor.” That was true, but that now had the potential to change. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King joining forces against the Vietnam War posed serious problems for Lyndon Johnson.
This decision by Robert Kennedy to take on Lyndon B. Johnson caused Jackie Kennedy great concern. A few days after Kennedy announced his candidacy, Jackie said to Arthur Schlesinger at a dinner party in New York: “Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby?” When Schlesinger replied that he didn’t, she said: “The same thing that happened to Jack.”
It is the view of William W. Turner that Robert Kennedy intended to reopen the investigation into the death of his brother once he had been elected president: “Throughout the primary (in California), Bobby Kennedy was asked by audiences whether he would reopen the investigation of his brother’s death if elected. He hedged, saying he would not reopen the Warren Report, but remained silent on the question of whether he would take action on his own. RFK was a pragmatist, if anything, knowing that he had to control the Justice Department to launch a new probe.”
Kennedy was deeply shocked by the assassination of Martin Luther King. Later that day he spoke in Indianapolis about the killing. He referred to the assassination of John Kennedy. When that happened he was “filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act” but pleaded with the black community not to desire revenge but to “make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
The assassination of King further radicalized Robert Kennedy. During a speech at the Indiana University Medical Center, one of the students called out: “Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you’re proposing?” Kennedy replied: “From you. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who will become doctors. Part of a civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don’t see many people coming here from the slums, or off of Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too… It’s the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam.”
The students reacted by hissing and booing Kennedy. His advisors warned him that if he was perceived as an extremist he would never win the election. However, Kennedy was no longer thinking like a politician trying to maximize his vote. Instead he was determined to say what he believed. Kennedy told Jack Newfield that he would probably not win the nomination but “somebody has to speak up for the Negroes and Indians and Mexicans and poor whites.” Despite this pessimism, Kennedy won the Indiana primary with 42% of the vote.
In an attempt to prevent Kennedy from being elected, J. Edgar Hoover leaked a report to Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson that when Kennedy was attorney general he had authorized the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King. Despite this news, Kennedy continued to get the vote of the black community and his campaign went well in California.
However, rumours were already spreading that Kennedy would die during the campaign. The FBI had picked up reports of an overheard conversation between Jimmy Hoffa and a fellow prisoner in the Lewisburg penitentiary about a contract to kill Kennedy.
One of the more chilling stories appeared in American Journey. Jimmy Breslin asked several reporters around a table whether they thought Kennedy had “the stuff to go all the way”. One of the men at the meeting, John J. Lindsay replied: “Yes, of course, he has the stuff to go all the way, but he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it, just as sure as we’re sitting here. He’s out there waiting for him.”
On 4th June, 1968, Harold Weisberg appeared on television in Washington where he discussed the possibility of Robert Kennedy being assassinated. Weisberg recalled a meeting with a Kennedy aide. Weisberg asked why Kennedy had supported the conclusions of the Warren Commission Report. He replied: “it is simple, Bobby wants to live.” Kennedy’s friend added that there were “too many guns between Bobby and the White House”. Weisberg asked who controlled these guns. The friend replied in such a way that Weisberg got the impression that he meant the CIA.
Robert Kennedy won the primary in California obtaining 46.3% (Eugene McCarthy received 41.8%). On hearing the result Kennedy went down to the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel to speak to his supporters. He commented on “the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam”. Kennedy claimed that the United States was “a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country” and that he had the ability to get people to work together to create a better society.
Robert Kennedy now began his journey to the Colonial Room where he was to hold a press conference. Someone suggested that Kennedy should take a short cut through the kitchen. Security guard Thane Eugene Cesar took hold of Kennedy’s right elbow to escort him through the room when Sirhan Sirhan opened fire. According to Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi, who performed the autopsy, all three bullets striking Kennedy entered from the rear, in a flight path from down to up, right to left. “Moreover, powder burns around the entry wound indicated that the fatal bullet was fired at less than one inch from the head and no more than two or three inches behind the right ear.”
An eyewitness, Donald Schulman, went on CBS News to say that Sirhan “stepped out and fired three times; the security guard hit Kennedy three times.” As Dan E. Moldea pointed out: “The autopsy showed that three bullets had struck Kennedy from the right rear side, traveling at upward angles – shots that Shiran was never in a position to fire.”
Kennedy had been shot at point-blank range from behind. Two shots entered his back and a third shot entered directly behind RFK’s right ear. None of the eyewitness claim that Sirhan Sirhan was able to fire his gun from close-range. One witness, Karl Uecker, who struggled with Shiran when he was firing his gun, provided a written statement in 1975 about what he saw: “There was a distance of at least one and one-half feet between the muzzle of Shiran’s gun and Senator Kennedy’s head. The revolver was directly in front of my nose. After Shiran’s second shot, I pushed the hand that held the revolver down, and pushed him onto the steam table. There is no way that the shots described in the autopsy could have come from Shiran’s gun. When I told this to the authorities, they told me that I was wrong. But I repeat now what I told them then: Shiran never got close enough for a point-blank shot.”
Chief of Detectives Robert Houghton asked Chief of Homicide Detectives Hugh Brown to take charge of the investigation into the death of Robert Kennedy. Code-named Special Unit Senator (SUS). Houghton told Brown to investigate the possibility that there was a link between this death and those of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
As William Turner has pointed out in The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: "Houghton assertedly gave Brown free reign in electing the personnel for SUS - with one exception. He specifically designated Manny Pena, who was put in a position to control the daily flow and direction of the investigation. And his decision on all matters was final." Lieutenant Manuel Pena was an interesting appointment. In November 1967 Pena resigned from the LAPD to work for the Agency for International Development (AID). According to the San Fernando Valley Times: "As a public safety advisor, he will train and advise foreign police forces in investigative and administrative matters. Over the next year he worked with Daniel Mitrione in Latin and South America.
Charles A. O'Brien, California's Chief Deputy Attorney General, told William Turner that AID was being used as an "ultra-secret CIA unit" that was known to insiders as the "Department of Dirty Tricks" and that it was involved in teaching foreign intelligence agents the techniques of assassination.
FBI agent Roger LaJeunesse claimed that Manuel Pena had been carrying out CIA special assignments for at least ten years. This was confirmed by Pena's brother, a high school teacher, who told television journalist, Stan Bohrman, a similar story about his CIA activities. In April 1968 Pena surprisingly resigned from AID and returned to the LAPD.
According to Dan E. Moldea (The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy), Houghton told the SUS team working on the case: "We're not going to have another Dallas here. I want you to act as if there was a conspiracy until we can prove that there wasn't one."
Lieutenant Manuel Pena argued that Sirhan Sirhan was a lone gunman. Shiran’s lead attorney, Grant Cooper, went along with this theory. As he explained to William W. Turner, “a conspiracy defence would make his client look like a contract killer”. Cooper’s main strategy was to portray his client as a lone-gunman in an attempt to spare Sirhan the death penalty by proving “diminished capacity”. Sirhan was convicted and sentenced before William W. Harper, an independent ballistics expert, proved that the bullets removed from Kennedy and newsman William Weisel, were fired from two different guns.
After Harper published his report, Joseph P. Busch, the Los Angeles District Attorney, announced he would look into the matter. Thane Eugene Cesar was interviewed and he admitted he pulled a gun but insisted it was a Rohm .38, not a .22 (the caliber of the bullets found in Kennedy). He also claimed that he got knocked down after the first shot and did not get the opportunity to fire his gun. The LAPD decided to believe Cesar rather than Donald Schulman, Karl Uecker and William W. Harper and the case was closed.
Cesar admitted that he did own a .22 H & R pistol. However, he claimed that he had sold the gun before the assassination to a man named Jim Yoder. William W. Turner tracked down Yoder in October, 1972. He still had the receipt for the H & R pistol. It was dated 6 th September, 1968. Cesar therefore sold the pistol to Yoder three months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Cesar had been employed by Ace Guard Service to protect Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. This was not his full-time job. During the day he worked at the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Burbank. According to Lisa Pease, Cesar had formerly worked at the Hughes Aircraft Corporation. Lockheed and Hughes were two key companies in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Intelligence Complex.
Thane Eugene Cesar was a Cuban American who had registered to vote for George Wallace’s American Independent Party. Jim Yoder claimed that Cesar appeared to have no specific job at Lockheed and had “floating” assignments and often worked in off-limits areas which only special personnel had access to. According to Yoder, these areas were under the control of the CIA.
Yoder also gave Turner and Christian details about the selling of the gun. Although he did not mention the assassination of Robert Kennedy he did say “something about going to the assistance of an officer and firing his gun.” He added that “there might be a little problem over that.”
Cesar was afraid that the assassination had been captured on film. It was. Scott Enyart, a high-school student, was taking photographs of Robert Kennedy as he was walking from the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel to the Colonial Room where the press conference was due to take place. Enyart was standing slightly behind Kennedy when the shooting began and snapped as fast as he could. As Enyart was leaving the pantry, two LAPD officers accosted him at gunpoint and seized his film. Later, he was told by Detective Dudley Varney that the photographs were needed as evidence in the Sirhan trial. The photographs were not presented as evidence but the court ordered that all evidential materials had to be sealed for twenty years.
In 1988 Scott Enyart requested that his photographs should be returned. At first the State Archives claimed they could not find them and that they must have been destroyed by mistake. Enyart filed a lawsuit which finally came to trial in 1996. During the trial the Los Angeles city attorney announced that the photos had been found in its Sacramento office and would be brought to the courthouse by the courier retained by the State Archives. The following day it was announced that the courier’s briefcase, that contained the photographs, had been stolen from the car he rented at the airport. The photographs have never been recovered and the jury subsequently awarded Scott Enyart $450,000 in damages.
One possible connection between the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy is that they were all involved in a campaign to bring an end to the Vietnam War. One man who does believe there is a connection is Edward Kennedy. NBC television correspondent Sander Vanocur, travelled with Edward Kennedy on the aircraft that brought back his Robert’s body to New York. Vanocur reported Kennedy as saying that “faceless men” (Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan) had been charged with the killing of his brothers and Martin Luther King. Kennedy added: “Always faceless men with no apparent motive. There has to be more to it.”
Lieutenant Manuel Pena remained convinced that Sirhan Sirhan was a lone-gunman. He told Marilyn Barrett in an interview on 12th September, 1992: "Sirhan was a self-appointed assassin. He decided that Bobby Kennedy was no good, because he was helping the Jews. And he is going to kill him." He also added: "I did not come back (to the LAPD) as a sneak to be planted. The way they have written it, it sounds like I was brought back and put into the (Kennedy) case as a plant by the CIA, so that I could steer something around to a point where no one would discover a conspiracy. That's not so."