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Leonard Pitts Jr.: RFK and the nation we might have been

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

It made my mother scream.

That’s what I remember. I had been lying dozy in bed, but at the sound of her, I scrambled into the living room. She was standing before the television watching an image of chaos in a hotel ballroom.

Although I grew up in the 1960s, very few of the signal events of that tumultuous decade managed to penetrate my childish, oblivious world. I have little firsthand memory of the Watts uprising, the 1968 Democratic convention, or the moon landing. But I remember the night, 50 years ago this week, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot.

I remember that scene in the ballroom. I remember a crude graphic on TV news showing where a bullet had entered his skull. I remember hearing that he had 11 children and feeling sorry for them that this had happened to their daddy.

But then, you tend to remember the things that make your mother cry.

In many ways, Bobby Kennedy was an unlikely figure for Mom’s great grief, a slightly built rich man with an upper-crust accent, sad eyes, a rabbity smile and that shaggy forelock he was forever sweeping off his forehead.

Because he was the runt of a rough-and-tumble clan, he was always obsessed with proving his toughness. So as a Senate lawyer, as a campaign manager for his brother Jack and as attorney general, Bobby was the unwavering scourge of communists, gangsters and anyone – he famously approved the wiretap of Martin Luther King, after all – he felt threatened his brother’s political fortunes.

Then Jack was killed.

In the five years between that tragedy and his own assassination in Los Angeles while running for president, a different Robert Kennedy emerged. He’s the one my mother mourned, the one whose example haunts this fractured political moment.

He’s the one who went to Bed-Stuy, Appalachia and other broken places politicians often do not go. He’s the one who went to California to join Cesar Chavez as he ended a 25-day hunger strike. He’s the one who went to the Mississippi Delta, knelt on a dirt floor and tried to coax a listless baby whose stomach was swollen by hunger.

He let those kinds of things get to him, let them trouble, shatter and remake him. He reached out to people living on the margins, and they reached back with such fervor that his aides had to physically anchor him to keep him from being pulled out of the car when he campaigned in certain places.

It turned out the tough guy had an instinct for the underdog and a deep, moral indignation over the unfair treatment that trapped them in their hoods and hollers, barely subsisting in the shadows of plenty. He saw their humanity. This, I think, even more than his opposition to the war in Vietnam, was what drew people like my mother.

There was, in that last ragged campaign of his, this sense of the possible, of the new, of fundamental, systemic change. There was this sense of a more compassionate America waiting just below the horizon. There was, in a word, hope. Or as Rep. John Lewis, then a campaign aide, consoled himself in the grim weeks after Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis: “At least we still have Bobby.”

Then Bobby was gone.

Fifty years later, as immigrant children are taken from their parents at the U.S. border, as the rich get richer while the poor work full-time jobs for part-time pay, as hatred flows from the top of our government, hope feels like a bygone relic of an outmoded age, like blood from a wound that never healed.

That night, Mom cried for a loss greater than she could have known. She mourned a good and decent man.

We mourn a nation that might have been.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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