The 1960s were a period of political upheaval in the United States. The country was in a long fight about Civil Rights and was in a very unpopular war in Vietnam. Protests and violence were daily occurrences in the United States during this time period.
The 1960s also saw several high-profile assassinations in the United States: John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King jr. in 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
Senator Robert Kennedy was in the process of running for the Democratic Nomination during the 1968 election. If successful, he would have gone up against Richard Nixon. His run was possible because Lyndon B. Johnson had refused to seek a second term (something almost unheard of in modern politics).
In the early morning of June 5, 1868, Kennedy had just finished giving a speech after winning the California Democratic Primary, when he was shot three times, once in the head at close range. The country, which was already in grief over the assassination of Martin Luther King jr. in April of 1968, was not prepared for another high-profile assassination. Riots and violence continued to flow across the nation.
One of the reasons why Kennedy’s shooting had such a huge impact is that he was seen as the only politician running in the election who had a chance of healing the divisions that had developed all across the country. He was supported by minorities, young people, Catholics, and several other high-profile groups, many of whom usually disagreed or failed to turn out to elections.
Kennedy was shot by 22-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan, who believed that Robert Kennedy was instrumental in the oppression of Palestinians. Sirhan was convicted of the shooting, and was originally sentenced to death. However, California’s Supreme Court invalidated all death penalty cases in the early 1970s. Sirhan still resides in a maximum security prison to this day.
Robert Kennedy died of his wounds early on the morning of June 6, 1968. Hubert Humphrey would go on to run for the Democrats in the 1968 election, but he would lose to Richard Nixon by a small margin.
As with every single high-profile assassination in the 1960s, there were several conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s shooting. The CIA being the real perpetrators behind the assassination has been a popular theory for decades. There have been media reports even as recent as 2006 that have proclaimed that there is evidence that the CIA had men in the crowd the night Kennedy was shot.
The aftermath of the shooting was widespread. It was a blow to American’s sense that everything was going to be okay, and that there was some politician out there who could unite the country. One person who had shook hands with Kennedy right before he was shot said afterwards, “It made me realize that no matter how much hope you have it can be taken away in a second.”
One of the reporters who was traveling with the Kennedy campaign wrote, “Now I realized what makes our generation unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961, and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope. The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were all alone.”