Fifty years ago last night, on June 6 just past midnight (PST) in Los Angeles’ legendary Ambassador Hotel, just blocks from the Brown Derby, after delivering his victory speech to a jammed ballroom a young Bobby Kennedy meandered through back kitchen areas offering his hand to working people employed in those places.
He was basking in the amazing momentum from that day’s stunning California and Indiana Democratic primary upset victories, when a great cosmic injustice was perpetrated, and he was gunned down, wallowing in his own blood on a kitchen floor.
Amazingly enough, to me, I was watching. I was 400 miles away in my Oakland, Calif., apartment at that time dozing off as the TV kept showing live feeds from the scene of the great victory celebration.
One fixed camera position of the empty podium in the ballroom was all that was airing, showing exhausted supporters slowly wending their ways to the exits after such a big night.
I was barely still awake in my robe on an uncomfortable couch before the 19 inch black and white TV screen when I noticed a change in the motions of the dwindling crowd from relaxed to suddenly highly agitated.
The sleepy TV announcers noticed too. Then someone rushed to the podium to ask if there was a doctor in the house. Literally his words.
In less than a minute the word came to the TV announcers that RFK had been shot.
They reported it, and for the next two hours I remained glued to that unchanging TV image as the announcers tried to report what happened in the kitchen area behind the stage.
I may have stepped to the fridge for a snack or to the toilet, but I have no recollection. Just the TV image.
How little did I know then, 50 years ago – 50 years ago! – last night, how that seminal event was to change my life forever.
What it was all about in the interim will take a book. But even more than the JFK shooting six years before and the MLK shooting two months before, for me and many in my generation this was the decisive game changer.
Beware of nostalgia. Talk about “fake news,” the mind has a clever way of filtering out bad memories and highlighting stuff not so bad. 1968 was not a good year, except for the fact of surviving it, for those who did.
1968 saw the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the riots that torched already suffering inner cities, the rapid degeneration of the Haight-Ashbury “Summer of Love” in 1967 to hard drug and crime-ridden hell holes, the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon.
Attenuating factors were mind and culture-altering films like “The Graduate” and “2001 A Space Odyssey,” both of which I saw that summer while in graduate school in Evanston.
There were the historic Gore Vidal vs. William Buckley nationally televised debates during the Democratic convention when Vidal goaded a snarling Buckley into calling him a “little faggot,” and the April opening of the historic “Boys in the Band” play in New York that, like it or not, was an important prequel to what became the gay liberation movement, more associated now with the Stonewall Riots a year later.
So long ago! In the meantime we’ve seen the Pentagon Papers and the end of the Vietnam War, a presidential resignation, a presidential movie star, a presidential outcome determined by the Supreme Court, a presidential dream come true for the memory of Dr. King, and an unmitigated presidential disaster.
There has been an AIDS epidemic that killed 600,000, the horror of 9/11, an unprovoked American invasion of Iraq, a slide to the precipice of a second great depression, and a successful Russian intervention into a U.S. presidential election that put a Philistine tool into the White House.
I’ve been lucky, and happy to still be here.
My life went through so many zigs and zags, par for the age. No nuclear war, not yet. But still missing Martin, John and Bobby.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].