The Death of a Movement

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One day, one hour and 47 minutes after three bullets struck him down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, Robert Francis Kennedy, the junior senator from New York and likely Democratic presidential nominee, died at 1:44 a.m., June 6, 1968.

It would take years, decades even, for historians to make sense of that single event. But now, we know how it changed the course of America.

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Bobby Kennedy's death was the signal moment marking the unofficial end of the civil rights movement. What had been a promising era, beginning with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, expired when Kennedy drew his last breath.

That's not an emotional overstatement, drawn on the continuing affection of the Kennedy name or the vestiges of a mythological Camelot. Rather, it's a fact rooted in the convergence of history and human behavior.

Few Americans, living through the tragedies of the 1960s, could comprehend how this one was different. After all, the decade had been bloody: Black and white activists died as they pressed for full rights of black residents in the South. Four little girls died in a bomb blast as they prepared for Sunday School. Cops on horseback and others aiming water hoses, whipped and drenched dreams of equality. Even Kennedy's own brother, the president of the United States, had been killed by an assassin.

But through the worst of it all, something remained—hope. It fueled the civil rights movement, sustained the marchers and freedom riders, fed belief that a better day would rise out of their horrible circumstances.

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The movement's leaders gave voice and personality to hope. And, now Bobby Kennedy, the last of them, was dead. Of course, other leaders remained alive and active, and new leaders arose in Kennedy's wake. But no one after him could bring differing masses of Americans together under the united belief of a peaceful, racially-blended nation. Bobby Kennedy was the last clear, articulate and public voice that advocated an integrationist model of race relations.

Indeed, months before his own death, Kennedy argued for racial harmony in the face of anger and despair, as he informed a stunned and angry Indianapolis crowd that King had just died, apparently at the hand of a white man.

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"For those of you who are black…," Kennedy said in an impromptu, nighttime address, "you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love."

While Kennedy's words that cold Indiana night helped avert the sort of rioting that destroyed many other urban centers, his comments proved prophetic.

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After Kennedy's death, the very notion of a great racial coming-together grew tired, a quaint and artificial rhetoric as the impulse to resegregate took root and a wave of nostalgia for the benefits of segregation supplanted the King-Kennedy "Kumbaya" dream.

Worse, hope seeped out of the national conversation about race.

In its place came a crass commercial vision of America. Conservative, white Americans found sloganeering voice—and politically energizing symbols—in "war on crime," "reverse discrimination," "moral majority" and "traditional family values."

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The progress of the civil rights movement stalled at the moment black Americans began to enter the national mainstream as legally enfranchised and empowered citizens. For some it was just too much to bear, as Republican leaders—notably Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—discovered creative ways to win elections by appealing to the fears, revulsion and economic uncertainty of white voters who saw black progress and wanted to believe it occurred at their expense.

This, in turn, created a counter reaction as Black Power demands yielded to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's rhythmic rhyming campaigns, which further frightened whites and escalated their political backlash.

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Lacking a clear, unifying voice of optimism, the nation frayed at its seams. (No, Reagan's "Morning in America" didn't stitch it back together.)

As historian-journalist Jules Witcover writes in The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America, America's progress toward equality came to a screeching halt not long after King and Kennedy died. "These and other events unleashed rioting, repression and assaults on the sensibilities of average Americans that turned generations, races, classes and lifestyles against one another in social and cultural divisions that persist in the nation's politics to the present time."

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It's a promising turn of fate and history that this year, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama ascends to the leadership of the Democratic Party. He often draws comparisons to Bobby Kennedy for inspiring a new generation of Americans to become politically engaged.

This is no accident, perhaps presaging a broader, second civil rights movement that completes the job stalled nearly a half-century ago. Now, Obama represents the Democratic Party's White House ambitions, running and repeating Bobby Kennedy's favorite word of inspiration:

Hope.

Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.

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