Robert F. Kennedy was the U.S. attorney general from 1961-1964 and a politician who championed civil rights and social justice issues. More commonly known as Bobby or RFK, he was one of the younger brothers of President John F. Kennedy and his most trusted advisor and chief counsel. In November 1960, after John F. Kennedy was elected, Robert was given the role of attorney general, in which he pursued a relentless crusade against organised crime and trade union corruption.
Some months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Robert F. Kennedy resigned as attorney general and was elected as a U.S Senator. In 1968 Kennedy announced his own campaign to run for the office of President.
He was successfully nominated by the Democratic Party on 5 June, but just minutes later, whilst celebrating his nomination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot by Palestinian militant Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan felt betrayed by Kennedy’s support for Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun a year to the day before the assassination. Some hours later Robert F. Kennedy died from his injuries, at age 42.
Here are 10 facts about the life and political legacy of Robert F. Kennedy.
1. His challenging family history defined his political ambition
Robert Francis Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 20 November 1925, the seventh of nine children to the wealthy businessman and politician Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and socialite Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Somewhat smaller than his siblings, he was often considered the “runt” of the family. Robert F. Kennedy once described how his position in the family hierarchy affected him, saying “when you come from that far down, you have to struggle to survive.” His continual battle to prove himself to his family gave him a tough, fighting spirit and triggered his ruthless political ambitions.
2. A trip abroad bonded Robert F. Kennedy to his brother John
Due to their age gap, as well as the war, the two brothers had spent little time together growing up, but a trip abroad would build a close bond between them. Alongside their sister Patricia, they embarked on an extensive 7-week trip to Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, a trip that was requested by their father specifically to connect the brothers and help with the families political ambitions. During the trip the brothers met Liaquat Ali Khan just before his assassination, and India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
3. He had a large family who filled the house with unusual pets
Robert F. Kennedy married his wife Ethel in 1950 and they went on to have 11 children, several of whom went on to become politicians and activists. They had a lively and busy family home with Ethel being a constant source of support to her husband’s political ambitions. In an article in the The New York Times published in 1962, the family was described as keeping an unusual range of pets including dogs, horses, a sea lion, geese, pigeons, a large quantity of goldfish, rabbits, turtles, and a salamander.
4. He worked for Senator Joe McCarthy
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was a friend of the Kennedy family and agreed to hire Robert F. Kennedy, who at the time was working as a young lawyer. He was placed on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which examined possible communists infiltration of the U.S. government, a position that gave him vital public visibility that helped his career.
But he left soon after, disagreeing with McCarthy’s brutal methods to gain intelligence on suspected communists. This placed him in a career crisis, feeling he had yet to prove his political prowess to his father.
5. He made an enemy out of Jimmy Hoffa
From 1957 to 1959 he was the chief counsel for a new subcommittee investigating corruption in the country’s powerful trade unions. Led by the popular Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters Union had over 1 million members and was one of the most powerful groups in the country.
Hoffa and Kennedy took an instant dislike to each other and had a series of very public showdowns that were broadcast live on television. Hoffa antagonised Robert F. Kennedy and the committee by continually refusing to answer questions about his involvement with the mafia. Kennedy received criticism for his frequent outbursts of anger during the hearings and he left the committee in 1959 to run his brother’s presidential campaign.
6. He was a civil rights activist
He played a crucial role in the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement during the Kennedy administration period. He ordered U.S. marshals to protect James Meredith, the first African-American student admitted to the University of Mississippi. He gave one of his most famous speeches in April 1968 in Indianapolis, after the murder Martin Luther King Jr, making an impassioned call for racial unity.
7. He was the first person to climb Mount Kennedy
In 1965 Robert F. Kennedy and a team of climbers reached the summit of the 14,000-foot Canadian mountain which had been named after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, months earlier. When he reached the peak he left placed several personal items of President Kennedy, including a copy of his inaugural address and a memorial medallion.
8. He debated with a young Ronald Reagan on live television
On the 15 of May 1967 the television news network CBS held a live debate between California’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, and Robert F. Kennedy, who had just become New York’s new Democratic senator.
The subject was the Vietnam War, with students from around the world submitting questions. Reagan, who was considered at the time to be a rookie new name in politics, powered through the debate, leaving a shocked Kennedy looking “as if he had stumbled into a minefield” according to a journalist at the time.
9. He was a successful political author
He was the author of The Enemy Within (1960), Just Friends and Brave Enemies (1962) and Pursuit of Justice (1964), all of which are somewhat autobiographical as they document various experiences and situations during his political career.
10. His assassin has been granted parole from prison
Sirhan Sirhan’s death sentence was commuted in 1972 after the California courts outlawed the death penalty. He is currently incarcerated in Pleasant Valley State Prison in California and has served 53 years in jail, after the shooting which arguably altered the course of history. On the 28 August 2021, a parole board controversially voted to grant his release from prison. The decision came after 2 of Robert F. Kennedy’s children appealed to the parole board to release their father’s killer.