Fifty years ago, many of us awoke to a nightmare for the second straight day.
A little after midnight on June 5, 1968, moments after winning the California primary, Sen. Robert F, Kennedy was shot three times.
Kennedy died nearly 26 hours later — at 1:44 a.m. — on June 6, 1968.
But a half-century later, the debate over what might have been if Kennedy survived isn’t dead. It’s not even past. Many of us remember that year as part of the late-decade slide into utter chaos in America.
And Kennedy’s murder, only two months after Martin Luther King’s, seemingly pushed us over the edge.
For perspective, as polarized as we are today, when held up to the din of America in 1968 it’s quiet as a Sunday.
Sure some today should be concerned — undocumented immigrants and young black men, for instance.
But in 1968 there was nothing abstract about Vietnam and a military draft that punched your ticket to an increasingly unpopular war.
African-American communities were still smoldering from 1967, months before King’s assassination and continued to afterwards.
Major anti-war protests pitted us against each other while the divide between the young and old was never more wider.
Kennedy had more than his share of skeletons in his closet, such as once backing Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rabid brand of patriotism. And he authorized the FBI’s wiretap on King’s phone lines after the 1963 March on Washington.
But aside from his looks, wealth, political connections and rock star magnetism he cared about people.
Kennedy’s entry into the race for the presidency came in mid-March and his campaign struggled to organize for the coming primaries. He campaigned 16 hours a day for 80 days, stopping only to attend King’s funeral.
He drew enormous crowds to campaign stops, yet also visited remote areas to meet the wretched of the earth. Those on the fringes of society where he would meet them, listen to them and respect them.
It’s been said that he went to places that a senator had never been, including senators from their own states.
Perhaps his concerns cannot be better underscored than his first words to a busboy cradling his bloody head after being shot. “Is everybody OK?” After being told they were (five others were wounded) to comfort him, he turned away and said, “Everything’s going to be OK.”
Political experts are still at odds about whether Kennedy could have won the Democratic Party’s nomination or beat Richard Nixon.
No one can say what might have been had he won both.
But his death undoubtedly altered the dreams of millions in 1968 and for years to come.