Tuesday, June 05, 2007

He grew up in privilege, and his early meetings with black leaders were not warm. Yet by 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot and killed, his widow asked Robert Kennedy to arrange to have his body moved from Memphis to Atlanta. His impromptu speech, passing on the news of King's assassination in a black neighborhood where he happened to be, is one of his most famous.

If we took Robert Kennedy out of time, and dropped him into our own, he would find a different country in many ways. There are nearly twice as many people in the United States. The racial and ethnic composition has changed. In 1968, one parent usually did the earning for the family, the man in most white families, and increasingly the woman in single parent poor black families. Two paycheck families, let alone two parents with five or six jobs between them, were rare.

Politically, the parties were stronger. Democrats had deep organizations in the cities, and industrial unions were strong. But the Democratic party was also coming apart. JFK knew that by leading on civil rights, the Democrats would lose their hold on the solid South. 1968 would see Richard Nixon exploit this. Vietnam was itself tearing younger people like me away from the party. Eugene McCarthy ran within the party, but he was not really of it. Robert Kennedy was, and his candidacy may have kept many young people in the party.

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