John O’Grady was just 4 years old in 1968, too young to join the throngs of people who turned out for Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Columbus that spring.
He grew up hearing the stories, however, from his father, Eugene “Pete” O’Grady, who led the Ohio Democratic Party and accompanied Kennedy during his visit May 13-14 as he campaigned for president.
“I remember the story of the crowd on Mount Vernon Avenue,” O’Grady said. “He was so adored that his car was mobbed. People wanted to touch him. They were grabbing his jacket, his tie. Bobby felt nothing but love and adoration from the people.”
Three weeks later, Kennedy was dead, mortally wounded in the early hours of June 5 in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died 26 hours later on June 6.
As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches, O’Grady reminisced at his Franklin County commissioner’s office. He remembers his father talking about what a loss it was. “Winning the California primary really changed everything, and there was a sense that the race was his to lose,” O’Grady recalled his father telling him.
O’Grady, 54, and the youngest of 12 in an Irish-Catholic family whose home on the West Side was filled with Kennedy photos and memorabilia, grew up inspired by the family. His father was the Northeast Ohio coordinator of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 when the O’Gradys still lived in Cleveland. John O’Grady grew up admiring John F. Kennedy but even more so, Robert F. Kennedy.
There was something about Bobby Kennedy.
Generation’s role model
A generation of Democratic politicians and other civic leaders in Columbus and elsewhere trace their political awakening to Robert F. Kennedy. They say he, in particular, was an inspiration as they came of age in the 1960s and started to pay closer attention to politics, the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.
“He meant a lot to me. He inspired me to go into politics, as did Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy,” said Michael B. Coleman, who served 16 years as Columbus mayor. “They were idols of mine. I wanted to reach up and be like them.”
Coleman, who heard King speak in 1967 in Toledo, where he grew up, was a 13-year-old Kennedy supporter in 1968.
“I was hoping that Bobby Kennedy would win the presidency. I identified with him — with his youth and his aspirations for the country, with his idealism, his fairness and his commitment to the civil rights movement.”
Coleman said he was devastated when King and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. “I felt the world was going upside-down.”
“Bobby Kennedy gave me hope and inspiration for the future — a dream for a nation and a people that could be better. You can’t be successful in politics unless you provide people with hope and inspiration, and a dream for something that’s bigger.”
Coleman, 63, said he tried to remember that as mayor. “That I needed to inspire and give people the hope to dream big.”
John P. Kennedy, 64, a former Columbus City Council president, grew up in New Jersey admiring the Kennedys (he is no relation) and King. Kennedy was in high school when King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and he remembers feeling shock, sadness and disbelief that this had happened yet again, not quite five years after the John F. Kennedy assassination.
“It was a crazy time. And it was the heat of Vietnam,” Kennedy said. “Bobby Kennedy was going to end the war in Vietman. The fact that he was assassinated meant the war was going to continue on.”
“Bobby Kennedy was the most-selfless public servant I ever came across (then) or have come across since,” Kennedy said. “He was a protector of those who were underrepresented: the African-American community, the Latino community, farm workers. Every group that had no representation, he stood up for. He did it because it was right.”
During his 11 years on the city council, Kennedy said he tried to emulate Bobby Kennedy’s example.
For example, he recalled, the Columbus Athletic Club and the Columbus Club did not admit women at the time. That changed in 1988. “We passed legislation I sponsored to make it illegal for private clubs over a certain number of members to discriminate because of gender. It was a big brouhaha. To me, that sort of thing was a Bobby Kennedy inspiration.”
Also in 1988, the council approved an ethnic-intimidation law carrying extra penalties for vandalism or violence against someone because of religion, color, national origin or sexual orientation, Kennedy said.
“Taking on unpopular causes is the right thing to do, and it’s what Bobby Kennedy taught all of us from that generation,” he said.
By the time Kennedy died at 42, he had come into his own as a politician. A U.S. senator from New York, he was campaigning as a progressive who supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War.
O’Grady’s father liked the change he saw.
“He talked about the transformation that Bobby made over the time he knew him, from being a tough guy to the most-compassionate of people,” O’Grady recalled. “With the JFK administration, he was the enforcer. After the assassination of JFK, there was a transformation, and Bobby became a very compassionate person. Dad was always very struck by that.”
Kennedy was often described as ruthless in the 1950s, when he was minority counsel to the communist-hunting committee chaired by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then chief counsel to another Senate committee that investigated mob and labor racketeering. Neither Kennedy brother at the time lent strong, early support to the civil rights struggle that King was leading, and Bobby Kennedy as attorney general authorized FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap King’s phones.
It was while he was attorney general in his brother’s administration, however, that Bobby Kennedy began to awaken to the civil rights movement. In the spring of 1963, he met in New York with black activists and got an earful.
“Bobby hears withering criticism of JFK’s position on civil rights,” said Ohio University history professor Chester Pach, who teaches a course on the 1960s. “It takes Bobby aback, but it causes him to think about the perspective that he’s hearing. JFK had been tepid on civil rights. It’s Bobby who develops a civil rights consciousness.”
“He was someone capable of changing his mind when confronted with realities with which he wasn’t familiar,” said Dave Steigerwald, an Ohio State University history professor who teaches a course about the 1960s. “This is the moment when he started to understand and appreciate the seriousness of the civil rights struggle, which made him more receptive to civil rights legislation.”
Robert Kennedy confronted segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and carried out President Kennedy’s order federalizing the Alabama National Guard to enforce the desegregation of the University of Alabama in June 1963. His brother’s assassination in November 1963 was an immense loss that deepened his empathy for other people and their struggles, said Katherine Jellison, chairwoman of the Ohio University history department.
“I think we were all reminded at the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. of the kind of person Bobby Kennedy had become by 1968, when they showed the footage of him in Indianapolis — and this is before Twitter — and he announces to the crowd that King had been assassinated,” Jellison said.
“He says, ‘Let’s keep our heads, a member of my family was assassinated, too,’ and he spoke with such empathy and in such a calm and understanding manner. Many people credit that (speech) for protecting Indianapolis from going up in flames as so many other cities did.”
“The moment made the man,” Steigerwald said. “He seemed to demonstrate a capacity to heal extraordinarily deep divisions, or at least allay them.”
The Rev. Tim Ahrens, 60, pastor of First Congregational Church of Columbus, remembers watching on his family’s black-and-white television in suburban Philadelphia the footage of Kennedy calming the crowd.
“It was a palpable cry from his heart,” Ahrens said.
He said the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King awakened in him a deep and abiding interest in social justice and politics.
“The death of King touched me on a deep spiritual level, and the death of Kennedy politicized me,” said Ahrens.
He sees the legacy of Kennedy and King continuing in the young people today protesting gun violence.
For Columbus attorney Joseph L. Mas, the Kennedy brothers and King served as good examples of how to lead a life of public service.
“I often talk to students about their responsibility to live a life of service,” said Mas, 69, a Cuban immigrant who advocates for the local Latino community.
Crowds of people lined the railroad tracks to pay their respects on June 8, 1968, as the train bearing Kennedy’s casket made its way from New York City after the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Washington, D.C., for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Blacks and whites, nuns and Catholic school kids, Little League baseball teams, police officers and military veterans paid homage — hands over hearts, saluting or holding flags.
Historians, including Steigerwald and Pach, said that display of mourning, which took in a real spectrum of Americans across race and class, may have marked the last time the country was so united.
“I think we still want to be inspired; we want to hope, we want people to represent the best of us, the best of our country,” Pach said. “A lot of people thought Robert F. Kennedy was that person in 1968, which made his loss so devastating.”