On This Day

rfk assassination, robert kennedy ambassador, rfk speech
Associated Press
Robert F. Kennedy speaks to campaign workers at the Ambassador Hotel minutes before he was shot, June 5, 1968.

On This Day: Robert F. Kennedy Shot

June 05, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 5, 1968, U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy died the next day.

RFK Assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan

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New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, had just been declared winner of the California state Democratic primary in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After speaking to a jubilant crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy greeted hotel staff in a hallway near the kitchen on his way to a planned news conference. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, was waiting for the senator near an ice-making machine.

As Kennedy was shaking hands with a dishwasher, “the gunman managed to get across the room, prop his right elbow on the serving counter and, from behind two assistant maîtres d'hôtel, fire at his victim just four feet away,” wrote Time.

Sirhan was wrestled to the ground by hotel staffers, as well as Kennedy aide Jack Gallivan, author George Plimpton, Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson and former NFL lineman Rosey Grier. In the struggle, Sirhan’s gun continued to let off shots, striking five others, none of whom suffered life-threatening injuries.

Kennedy had been hit with three shots, two of which lodged in his body. One entered through his armpit and reached the bottom of his neck. The other struck Kennedy behind the right ear.

Kennedy remained on the pantry floor for 23 minutes before ambulances arrived. “After five minutes, a brain deprived of blood-transported oxygen suffers irreversible and often fatal damage,” wrote Time. “Thus the doctors who tried desperately last week to save the life of Robert F. Kennedy were faced with overwhelmingly negative odds.”

Doctors performed emergency surgery on the senator, but he had lost too much blood and had suffered irreversible brain damage. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m PDT on June 6, 25 hours after he had been shot.

Biography: Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy was born Nov. 20, 1925, in Brookline, Mass., the son of diplomat Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. He served as his brother John F. Kennedy’s attorney general, remaining in the position for a year after JFK was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

As attorney general, Kennedy was known for his commitment to social justice, advocacy for civil rights and prosecution of organized crime figures.

In those high offices he greatly influenced the country’s foreign and domestic affairs, first as the closest confidant of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and then, after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, as the immediate heir to his New Frontier policies,” says The New York Times.

Kennedy ran for Senate from New York in 1964, defeating incumbent Kenneth Keating. Writer David Reitzes describes Kennedy as an action-oriented “revolutionary senator” who was impatient with the slow pace of most reforms. “Politicians do nothing but hold meetings,” Kennedy said. “You can’t get any work out of a politician.”

Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination in the 1968 presidential election after President Johnson’s surprisingly narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary. After Johnson dropped out, Kennedy would go on to win primaries in Indiana and Nebraska, and lose the Oregon primary to Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy surprisingly defeated McCarthy in California; it appeared that he would win the nomination before he was assassinated.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey would go on to defeat McCarthy for the nomination, but he lost in the presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon. “It’s one of the tantalizing questions in American history: what if Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated?” asks PBS.

PBS asked political figures, journalists, historians and others for their opinion. Journalist Jack Newfield said, “We'll never know how his mix of radical ideas, and somewhat conservative personal values—of self-sacrifice, and self-discipline, and stoicism, and patriotism—how that would ever play out in power … Would he really have gotten us out of Vietnam? … Would he really have dealt with poverty and racism in the cities?”

Analysis: Sirhan’s Motive

Sirhan Sirhan is believed to have shot Kennedy in revenge for Kennedy’s support of Israel. June 5, 1968, was the first anniversary of the Six Day War, in which Israel defeated Egypt and its allies. Influenced by the pan-Arabism preached by Egypt’s Gamal Abdal Nasser, Sirhan was reportedly devastated by the defeat.

He was sentenced to death in California for the assassination, but the state abolished capital punishment before Sirhan was executed. He remains in prison today.

Background: JFK and MLK Assassinations

Robert Kennedy was the second Kennedy brother to be assassinated; five years earlier, his older brother John was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald as he rode in an open-topped convertible through Dallas.

Just two months before Kennedy’s assassination, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis. King collapsed and was taken to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital, where emergency surgery failed to save his life.

At a campaign rally that night, Kennedy gave a moving speech remembering King. “We can do well in this country,” he said. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.”

Secret Service Protection Extended to Presidential Candidates

After Kennedy’s assassination, Congress passed Public Law 90-331, which authorized protection of major presidential and vice presidential candidates and nominees. Congress also authorized protection for widows of presidents until death or remarriage, and for their children until they reach the age of 16.

Reference: FBI Documents on the Shooting

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