In my youth, he was a political hero of mine who represented so much hope for us disenfranchised people, hope to be heard and to have equal opportunities. I still have a very tender place in my heart and a very reverence for Senator Robert F. Kennedy. How clearly I recall this morning in 1968. Something was different that Southern California morning. I didn't hear Mom's usual quick steps as she got ready for work and helped us get ready for school. I didn't hear the usual voices and music coming from KMPC radio. I went into the kitchen. My mother was sitting by the radio, not yet dressed for work. She'd been crying. I heard a reporter on KMPC speaking amidst commotion and I got an awful feeling. Mom confirmed it. She looked up at me and said simply and quietly and full of pain, "He's gone." Shortly after midnight that morning, after another success in his presidential campaign, Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles.
Two months earlier, he had comforted us black people when the country got news that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. In 1963, he'd laid his brother to rest. President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while in office. The nation mourned.
What was happening to America? Two days before Sen. Bobby Kennedy was shot in my hometown, I'd seen him and Ethel Kennedy in person. He made a campaign stop in Watts, the section of South Central Los Angeles where I attended high school. Our Catholic school student body was so sweetly hyper, so excited in anticipation of his appearance -- he'd be speaking at a park a short distance from the school -- that our principal dismissed classes a half-hour early so we could dash over to park and wait for RFK. Something else I won't forget -- the looks of sheer delight and pride on the faces of faculty members at the cheers that erupted when the announcement was made that we'd be getting out of classes early for Bobby Kennedy's appearance. Ours was an all boys' parochial high school student body. Predominantly African-American and Mexican-American students. There was only one white dude on the whole Verbum Dei campus. And his family was scufflin' financially just like the rest of ours were. He was one of us.
Our teachers were so proud because we were excited to see someone not a rock star, not a movie star, not a sports star. But a politician. A presidential hopeful. We saw him arrive. Wow! What a sight! He looked so robust, fit, handsome, energetic and vital. Ethel looked tanned and radiant. Bobby Kennedy had such intense charisma that it made me gasp when they drove by in that convertible, obviously loving the love they received from the minority crowd. The feeling was mutual. We just knew he'd win.
And then...just two days after seeing him in person in Watts....
The 1960s. Such light. Such darkness.
If you have time today, visit the CBS News-dot-com website. Look for the feature about the black doctor who attended to the mortally wounded senator. The feature was done by the doctor's daughter, CBS News reporter Michelle Miller. It's a news feature that put tears in my eyes. She found footage in the CBS archives that had long been unseen. Footage of her father. Reportedly, her son forced her to prove that granddad was there during those tragic pre-dawn hours at the Ambassador Hotel.
Those were the days before camcorders, cell phones with cameras, YouTube, other social media and 24-hour cable news. This was before cable. If the average person took photographs, you'd have to take the roll of film to a drugstore and have the photos developed. We didn't see reporters and TV news vans in our area when Sen. Kennedy came to visit us. There were no soundbites from us minority students eagerly awaiting his appearance. Also, we were in South Central Los Angeles. Before the notorious Watts Riots of 1965, riots that put our family in the curfew area, major news outlets like the Los Angeles Times didn't assign reporters to cover South Central L.A. Watts did not get the attention that Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills or Santa Monica did. Until it erupted.
After the riots, attention from the press was still irregular. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy came to Watts. A lot of local and network news journalists did not. Karl Fleming wrote about journalistic racial attitudes towards our community in his memoir, Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir. He was one of the few white journalists who had the balls to cover South Central Los Angeles and challenge newsroom discrimination. He covered major Civil Rights stories in the South for Newsweek. He covered Watts when assigned to the magazine's L. A. bureau in the turbulent 1960s. Reportedly, that Newsweek bureau had no black reporters on staff.