Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) served as the U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964 and as a U.S. senator from New York from 1965 to 1968. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia School of Law, Kennedy was appointed attorney general after his brother John Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected president in 1960. In this role, Robert Kennedy fought organized crime and worked for civil rights for African Americans. He also served as a close advisor to the president. In the Senate, he was a committed advocate of the poor and racial minorities, and opposed escalation of the Vietnam War. On June 5, 1968, while in Los Angeles campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy was shot. He died early the next day at age 42. Kennedy, the father of 11 children, was buried at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of his brother John.
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (1888-1969), a wealthy financier, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995), the daughter of a Boston politician. Kennedy spent his childhood between his family’s homes in New York; Hyannis Port, Massachusetts; Palm Beach, Florida; and London, where his father served as the American ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940.
During World War II (1939-1945), Kennedy served in the U.S. Navy. In 1946 he was an apprentice seaman on the shakedown cruise of a naval destroyer named for his eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944), a Navy pilot killed during the war. After completing his military service, in 1948 Kennedy graduated from Harvard University, the alma mater of his father and older brothers. He went on to attend law school at the University of Virginia, earning his degree in 1951.
That same year, Kennedy began working as a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1952 he managed his brother John’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. The following year, Kennedy worked as an assistant counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by anticommunist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) of Wisconsin.
In the late 1950s, as chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, Kennedy gained national attention for investigating corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a powerful trade union led by James “Jimmy” Hoffa (1913-1975). Kennedy left the committee in 1959 to manage his brother John’s successful presidential campaign.
Robert Kennedy’s Marriage and Family
On June 17, 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel (1928-) of Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple had 11 children: Kathleen (1951-), Joseph II (1952-), Robert Jr. (1954-), David (1955-1984), Courtney (1956-), Michael (1958-1997), Kerry (1959-), Christopher (1963-), Max (1965-), Douglas (1967-) and Rory (1968-), who was born six months after her father’s death. The family lived at an estate called Hickory Hill in McLean, Virginia.
Kennedy’s oldest son, Joseph, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999, while his daughter Kathleen was lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003.
Robert Kennedy as U.S. Attorney General
After John Kennedy was elected president in November 1960, he named Robert Kennedy as America’s 64th attorney general. In this role, Kennedy continued to battle corruption in labor unions, as well as mobsters and organized crime. In 1964, Jimmy Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering and fraud.
As attorney general, Kennedy also advocated for the civil rights of African Americans. In the fall of 1962, he sent thousands of federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court order admitting the first black student, James Meredith (1933-), to the University of Mississippi. The state’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett (1898-1987), had attempted to bar Meredith, whose enrollment prompted riots and violence at the school.
Additionally, Kennedy worked with his brother, as well as his successor as president, Lyndon Johnson (1908-73), on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, employment and public facilities.
Kennedy also acted as one of his brother’s closest political advisors in the White House and was involved in important foreign policy decisions, including the administration’s handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. He later wrote a book about the crisis, titled “Thirteen Days,” which was published posthumously in 1969.
Robert Kennedy’s Senate Career and Bid for the Presidency
On November 22, 1963, 46-year-old President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Robert Kennedy stayed on as attorney general under President Johnson until September 1964, when he resigned to embark on a campaign to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. Despite charges from some that he was a carpetbagger with little connection to the Empire State, Kennedy won the election and took office in January 1965.
As senator, Kennedy championed civil rights and social justice issues. He traveled to Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, migrant workers’ camps and urban ghettos to study the effects of poverty, and made trips abroad to such places as apartheid-ruled South Africa to advocate for the advancement of human rights. Kennedy also spoke out against President Johnson’s policies to further escalate the war in Vietnam.
In 1968, Kennedy was urged by his supporters to run for president as an antiwar and socially progressive Democratic. Hesitant until he saw positive primary returns for fellow antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005), Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 16, 1968, declaring, “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”
On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) became the key Democratic hopeful, with McCarthy and Kennedy trailing closely behind. Kennedy conducted an energetic campaign and on June 4, 1968, won a major victory in the California primary.
Robert Kennedy’s Assassination
In the early hours of June 5, 1968, shortly after delivering a speech to celebrate his win in the California primary, Kennedy was shot in a kitchen corridor outside the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next day at age 42.
In 1969, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan (1944-), a Palestinian immigrant, was convicted of Kennedy’s murder and sentenced to death. However, in 1972, after the California Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment, Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he remains today.
On June 8, at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Edward “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009), a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and the youngest Kennedy sibling, delivered a now-famous eulogy for his brother, remembering him as “a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
After the funeral, Kennedy’s coffin was taken by train from New York to Washington, D.C., with hundreds of thousands of mourners lining the tracks along the route. The train arrived in the nation’s capital that night, and a motorcade transported Kennedy’s body to Arlington National Cemetery for a rare nighttime burial.