This week is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F.Kennedy. While the controversy and conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of his brother John F. Kennedy are well known, the death of Robert Kennedy is far less familiar to the public. A political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth created an archive devoted to RFK’s assassination that has been a valuable resource for those looking into alternate theories about the murder.
The late Philip Melanson created the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archive in 1984, four years before the release of the Los Angeles Police Department’s files on the killing. Those files were sealed for 20 years after the shooting. Melanson wrote two books about RFK’s assassination, challenging the official conclusion that Sirhan Sirhan was the sole assassin in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
“To date there have been four witnesses whose accounts seem credible to me, who have talked about seeing a man in plain clothes with a gun in the pantry,” said Melanson in a 1993 public radio documentary. “And three of those four witnesses allege that such a gun was fired in proximity to Kennedy.”
Melanson believed that Sirhan was programmed with the use of hypnosis to carry out the killing. Often assassination conspiracies like this are dismissed as loopy but Philip Melanson brought academic rigor to his work.
“He’s still revered by the community that looks into these issues,” says his son, Jess Melanson.
Jess Melanson remembers his father as a man devoted to his research who traveled far and wide making media appearances in an effort to educate the public on political assassinations.
“For him as a political scientist, to understand how our political leaders were killed and who killed them and what their motivation was, is hugely important to understand the political implications of what happened and how it changed public policy and how it changed the country.”
The collection is kept in a climate-controled storage room at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In the room, a row of 12-foot high shelves contain about a million pages of documents and other materials relating to the assassination.
“It starts with the LAPD records here, then the FBI records, we have the House Select Committee on Assassinations, photographs, newspaper clippings, private investigators’ materials. These are all the audio tapes,” explains librarian Judy Farrar.
The audio tapes include recordings of police interviews in which witnesses were brow-beaten and pressured to change their stories, as well as recordings of hypnosis sessions conducted by psychiatrists. Sirhan had no recollection of the shooting during the sessions. In one interview the psychiatrist says, “Reach for your gun, Sirhan. It’s your last chance, Sirhan. Reach for your gun. Where is your gun? Where is your gun? Reach for it.”
Bill Klaber is Philip Melanson’s co-author of the 1997 book Shadow Play, which refers to the RFK assassination as an unsolved murder. Klaber went back to the UMass archive to do research for the book’s just-published revised edition. He also has a hand in a new podcast that makes extensive use of audio from the archive.
“If you want to research the murder of Robert Kennedy, they have lots and lots of audio tapes that other people don’t have, interviews that various researchers have made talking to witnesses,” Klaber says.
Bill Klaber is part of a small fraternity of journalists and investigators who have spent decades researching the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Many in that fraternity have praised the work of Philip Melanson.
“Phil was a brave man,” says Klaber. “I don’t think I quite appreciated the extent of his courage when I was working with him. He was a tough guy. He took on the CIA. He took on some really rough characters in books that he wrote.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. joined the list of those who believe that Sirhan was not the sole assassin. That group now includes the 93 year-old labor activist who was shot in the head with what is believed to be the first bullet out of Sirhan’s gun.
This report comes from The New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.