Earlier this year, Dolores Huerta told an audience at UCLA to remember to honor Robert F. Kennedy on June 6th, her friend, whom she was with when he was assassinated in Los Angeles 50 years ago today—to remember his ardent support of the Farm Workers’ movement, this loyal friend to minorities, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, poor whites and the voiceless, to remember the man who tried to build a bridge of understanding across the country’s divisions and dreamed of a more just and equal America.
A story that I like to share is my mother’s experience with RFK. When my mom, Frances, was a teenager, just shy of turning 18, RFK drove in a convertible through Pico Rivera, a suburban town 12 miles east of Los Angeles, and then through the cities of Montebello, Monterey Park and East Los Angeles, on his way to the Ambassador Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles where he would make his victory speech after winning the California primary in the race for the presidential election.
She and her friends ran to the town’s main drag, Whittier Boulevard, and pushed their way through the crowds. When she made her way to his car, she put her hand up toward RFK and he clasped her hand with of both of his hands, “Yes, I can still feel his warm hand in mine. He took my hand with both of his hands and looked at me straight in the eyes with a warm smile. It’s so real to me till this day.” She says she can still feel the moment of connection and how much hope everyone felt because of his candidacy, but also how crushed she felt seeing him killed on TV later that day. “I ran home to watch him on TV. He was shown shaking hands all the way to Downtown L.A. We all started crying when we saw that he was killed.”
Fast forward 50 years, I saw someone write on social media the other day: “Why don’t we have politicians like RFK anymore? Has America lost its brain cells?” It’s not the simple.
It’s because anyone like Bobby Kennedy will be killed, or, at least, we’re suffering from a collective fear of being killed. The assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK in the matter of a few short years—people who advocated for basic decency for all, equality, and civil rights—left a traumatic and indelible scar on the psyche of Americans. “Is it worth my life to be the next RFK—to meet an end like RFK?” Alas, people who are like RFK today instead become activists of some sort, but they don’t have real power and they aren’t creating legislation. Activists advocate, citizens protest, but most people in the country don’t vote, which is fine and dandy with the powers that be.
As documented in the New York Times, the “power to people” that RFK brought to the electorate is almost unbelievable in today’s America, where the majority of Americans don’t vote. On that fateful day, the California primary vote was taking place and Bobby had decided if he didn’t win The Golden State, he’d withdraw. Instead, of dropping out, something amazing happened: polling sites in minority neighborhoods closed early, not because of nefarious reasons, but because every single registered voter had cast their ballot.
Obviously, this had to be put to a stop.
When Obama was running against John McCain, I asked my grandmother, “You’re voting for Obama, right?” She said, I’m skipping the vote this year.” I said, “Whaaat? You never miss a vote.” She said, “I just can’t vote for him because they’ll hurt him and I’m tired of being part of that.”
For the people who lived through those three gruesome public assassinations—modern-day town square killings that were meant to send a strong message to anyone with “ideas” and to shutdown all the hope and dreams of left-leaning citizens—they still inspired gut-wrenching fear and sadness half a century later. Dolores said recently, “His assassination was the death of our future. Civil rights would have been the forefront of his agenda.” Congressman John Lewis said today at a RFK memorial at the Capitol, “Something died in America that day.”
When I was applying to schools, I opened my essay with a quote that RFK often used to express his worldview:
“You see things, and you say ‘Why?’
But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?”
UCLA admissions called me and asked me to commit, saying my essay was the key to my offer, but I’m positive it was from my specific feelings about RFK, and how much of his courage, integrity, ideas and ideals are what inspire my life goals, my interest in journalism, reporting, activism and politics. I still use his ideals to spur my own daily political activism to stand of for what I believe is just and right, even if I stand alone.
Robert F. Kennedy’s was assassinated because he believed in equality and justice.
Therefore, we must continue to speak his name,
push forward his ideas,
so that he will never really be gone,
but he will live on through us.
In these dark days of trump, I encourage everyone reading this to keep the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy alive, educate younger people about him, and keep asking “Why not”?
Why can’t we have healthcare for all? Why can’t we have racial and economic equality? Why can’t we have shelter for our citizens who are down and out? Why can’t we have good schools in every community? Why can’t human rights matter? Why can’t we protect our environment? Why can’t we help and love one another despite gender or race? Why can’t we have a better world?”
Never stop asking, Why not?