RFK Dies 41 years ago today

Robert F. Kennedy died 41 years ago today.

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I had the opportunity to hear RFK speak at Brigham Young University on March 27, 1968. The 1960s were difficult times – in 1968 – the Vietnam War was raging, RFK was challenging a sitting President LBJ for his party’s nomination, demonstrators were in all of the major cities. Less than a week following RFK’s talk Martin Luther King would be shot & killed. Two months after that RFK was shot and killed.

Kennedy’s remarks on campus were effective. He had done his homework; he had broken the ice and won over the respect of the packed arena. That fairly conservative campus was no longer his adversary but was ready to listen. He spoke briefly and took all questions. Tough questions. He was grilled but he was comfortable explaining his positions on the current state of the war and the country.

I clearly remember his opening remarks – with humor he reached out to his audience and showed respect for their history and beliefs. His actions and remarks echo in today’s headlines.

“Thank you very much. Thank you. I appreciate very much being here at this campus … I understand that this is a campus made up of all political persuasions. I had a very nice conversation with Dr. {Ernest L.} Wilkinson [laughter] … and I promised him that all Democrats would be off campus by sundown [laughter, applause].

But I feel very close to this state. Not only did part of my wife’s family live in the state of Utah for a long period of time, I traveled down your Green River…spent part of the time in the water (laughter) … part of my honeymoon here and I’ve had ten children since – so I have learned something from the Mormons [laughter].

I think that we still have a great deal in common, and in common with the man this university honors. For I too have a large family [laughter], I too have settled in many states [laughter]. And now I too know what it is to take on Johnson’s army. [Standing ovation, laughter and applause].” (Read the complete text at: Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol 3, Number 3, Autumn 1968).

The reference to “Johnson’s Army” was a reference to his taking on President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic Party Primaries as well as to President James Buchanan sending General Albert S. Johnston and his troops to quell the non-existent “Utah Rebellion” in 1857. This otherwise obscure reference was well known to BYU students schooled in Utah history. With this series of well thought out personal & historical references he won over the crowd.

After his remarks students crowded around to shake his hand. I was one of them. I was surprised at how short he was. I had always pictured him as over 6’ tall – but he was only 5’9” … shorter than I was then (but now that I am shrinking, I am catching up to him :)

(Photo courtesy BYU Archives).

I learned that day that it is important to see and hear a person speak for themselves – to take the measure of a man. I concluded that he was an honest man who believed in what he was doing and trying to accomplish. It was an honor to shake his hand that day – 27 March 1968.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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