50 Years Later, A Look Back At Robert Kennedy's Message Of Hope

Jun 6, 2018

This week marks 50 years since Robert F. Kennedy was shot in California while campaigning for the presidency. He died from his wounds the following day.

Earlier that same year -- 1968 — the Vietnam war was raging, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, race riots were erupting and Cesar Chavez, a leader for migrant farm workers, went on a hunger strike. Kennedy, then U.S. senator from New York and former U.S. attorney general, brought a message of tolerance and hope to the striking workers in California.

In March of 1966, as Peter Edelman remembers it, Kennedy didn't need much convincing to get on a plane headed for Delano, California. "I said, Cesar Chavez is a impressive, young organizer and leader of the farm workers and this is the first and best chance of succeeding in creating a recognized union for farm workers."

Edelman was a legislative aid for Kennedy who was on a Senate subcommittee on migratory labor. Edelman traveled with Sen. Kennedy to California's Central Valley for committee hearings, investigating why grape farm workers were striking. Edelman says tensions were high during the hearings, with owners of the farms and the migrant workers sharing the same hall.

In this April 11, 1966, file photo, Cesar Chavez, leader of the Delano grape pickers' strike, waves to the crowd from the steps of the California Capitol in Sacramento. Chavez led his strikers and sympathizers on an over 300-mile, 25-day pilgrimage from Delano to the capitol in an attempt to meet with Gov. Brown on Easter Sunday.
Credit AP Photo

"And as [Kennedy] walks in and sits down and kind of tunes in, the sheriff is there testifying and he's telling the committee that he had arrested these farm workers," said Edelman.

"If I have reason to believe that there's going to be a riot started and somebody tells me that there's going to be trouble if you don't stop them, then it's my duty to stop them," Kern County Sheriff Leroy Galyen told the committee.

Kennedy asked Galyen: "Well, then you go out and arrest them? How can you go arrest somebody if they haven't violated the law?"

"They're ready to violate the law," Galyen said.

Kennedy began to pound his fist on the table and said, "Could I suggest in the luncheon period of time that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States?"

The workers erupted into cheers for Kennedy's rebuke of the sheriff, sensing they had an advocate in Kennedy. Edelman says Kennedy met the leader of the migrant worker movement, Cesar Chavez, shortly after the hearing.

"We were in the parking lot and Chavez came from a slightly different direction and they met, they shook hands and just, there was an instant bonding that made them friends forever."

Kennedy would later support adding farm workers to the National Labor Relations Act and in 1968, he traveled back to Delano to see his friend Cesar Chavez.

Chavez was fasting, asking for better wages, better working conditions and the right to unionize. When Kennedy touched down in Delano, he made it clear why he was back.

"The farm workers have suffered and grown much more slowly economically than any other segment of our society," Kennedy told reporters. "It's terribly unfair and very unreasonable and very, very unjust. These people have suffered tremendously."

Paul Chavez is one of Cesar Chavez's sons and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation. He was just a young boy when Kennedy visited in 1968, as his father was at the peak of his hunger strike.

"My father still suffered but the fact that Bobby Kennedy came out to lend support really gave people a lot of hope and pride and it comforted a lot of people during difficult times," he says.

Kennedy sat with Cesar Chavez as he broke his fast and he walked among the picket lines, listening to chants of "Viva Kennedy." Paul Chavez says Kennedy's willingness to be present, to go where other politicians would not, and to focus on hope are things  that are missing from our current political dialogue.

"It seems like policies and statements are being made that appeal to the worst in us as a people. And if you take a look at Bobby Kennedy's life, he really talked about this tremendous faith he had in the goodness and the kindness of the American people," Chavez said. "When you have politics and there's a morality in the discussion, then I think it's bound to lead to good and positive things."

Kennedy summarized his view of the migrant farm workers' strike in Delano, saying: "It's not just a question of wages. Its a question of housing; it's a question of education; it's a question of living conditions. It's a basic question of hope for the future."

A week later, Kennedy declared his candidacy for president. It was a bid that would end with his death only three months into the campaign.