Robert Francis Kennedy, an Agent of Hope

A black and white photo of Robert F. Kennedy at a podium.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy appears before the Platform Committee of the Democratic National Convention. August 19, 1964.

Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Robert F. Kennedy was enormously influential in his brother John’s campaigns for public office. Appointed by President Kennedy as U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy’s influence extended far beyond his title, and he became one of President Kennedy’s most trusted advisors. In 1964, Robert Kennedy successfully ran for a U.S. Senate seat from New York. In 1968, he made his own bid for the White House. Robert Kennedy brought people together from a vast array of social and economic backgrounds to address the pressing issues of poverty and racial injustice in a way few other politicians of the time, or since, were able to do. He became a champion for the vulnerable and dispossessed. Tragically, he was assassinated on the campaign trail.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.-Robert Francis Kennedy, June 6, 1966.

A black and white photo of Bobby Kennedy as a child petting a dark colored rabbit in a large lawn.
Robert F. Kennedy pets a rabbit on the lawn of the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, FL, April 1, 1934.

Photographer unknown. Copyright John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Kennedy Family Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Early Life and Education

Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on November 20, 1925. He was the seventh child born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy. The Kennedys had high expectations for their children and instilled a competitive spirit in them. As a child, Bobby was self-conscious about his slight build and for being shier and more awkward than his siblings. He was also sensitive and compassionate; as well as religiously devout and served as an altar boy.

Throughout his youth, Bobby was shuffled around to several different schools. In 1942, he transferred to Milton Academy, a preparatory school, in Milton, MA. He joined the school’s football team, where he worked tirelessly and demonstrated great strength and determination on the field.

After graduating from Milton, Bobby studied at Harvard University. At Harvard, he continued to show great tenacity as he took up the end position. Despite his size and a physical injury, he earned a letter for his efforts, something neither of his two older brothers, Joe Jr. and John, were able to achieve.
A black and white photo of Bobby Kennedy with his hand raised.  He stands beside his father and a U.S. Navy Officer in front of an American flag.
Robert Kennedy being sworn into the navy, December 1943.

U.S. Navy/ John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Bobby idolized his older brothers and yearned for the opportunity to serve with them in World War II. In 1944, he began the V-12, a program designed to educate future naval officers, while still attending Harvard. In 1946, he enlisted in the Navy as a Seaman Second Class. He served aboard the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a naval destroyer named in honor of his older brother who died tragically in the war. With the war over, Bobby decided to end his military service and he was honorably discharged in May 1946.

After leaving the Navy, Bobby resumed his studies at Harvard and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1948. He then attended the University of Virginia Law School and graduated in 1951.

It was during his time at law school, on June 17, 1950, that Bobby married Ethel Skakel. The couple had eleven children together and Bobby was a devoted father. Among his children, he fostered a sense of competitiveness, just as his parents had done, and passed on his religious devotion by leading his family in prayer before bed.

Campaign Manager

Fresh out of law school and just beginning to navigate his own life, Bobby was summoned back to Massachusetts to help his brother, John Kennedy, with his 1952 campaign for U.S. Senate. During the campaign, as well as John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, which Bobby also managed, Bobby established a reputation for being determined, and hardworking. His critics regarded him as “ruthless,” but his supporters praised his efficacy.
A black and white photo of RFK and JFK looking down and studying a document.
Robert and John Kennedy during a session of the “Rackets” Committee. No date listed.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

“Rackets” Committee

After the 1952 campaign was done, and his brother had won a seat in the U.S. Senate, Bobby worked as a lawyer for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. However, he soon left after he witnessed McCarthy’s increased fanatic anti-communist views. He rejoined the subcommittee but worked against McCarthy.

In 1955, Bobby became the chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (Rackets Committee), where he explored the connections between the mob and trade unions, and racketeering done by the labor unions.

The committee’s public hearings often involved many notorious figures, like the Teamsters Union boss James “Jimmy” Hoffa. Kennedy was appalled by the corruption he believed Hoffa symbolized and the hearings were contentious. Despite Kennedy’s best efforts, Hoffa repeatedly escaped a “guilty” verdict by the jury; later it was revealed Hoffa had engaged in jury tampering. Kennedy was determined, however, to keep fighting corruption.
A black and white photo of RFK and JFK outside the Oval Office.  JFK's back is turned to the camera and RFK looks pensive.
President Kennedy meets with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (left) outside the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. October 3, 1962.

Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Attorney General

In 1960, after he managed his brother John’s successful presidential campaign, President Kennedy appointed Bobby U.S. Attorney General. The appointment was controversial, since Bobby had never practiced law before and was appointed due to their father’s insistence that the President have someone he could trust. However, many of Bobby’s skeptics were later awed by his success. As attorney general, Bobby continued to fight against organized crime, and convictions against members of organized crime rose by 800%.

Civil rights were not a top priority for Bobby when he became attorney general. However, after meeting with writer James Baldwin, along with a small group of Black writers and activists; and seeing the police brutality towards the peaceful Freedom Riders in Birmingham, AL, Bobby’s views began to evolve, and he became a devoted advocate for the cause.

As the brother of the president, Bobby’s role extended far beyond the duties of attorney general. When President Kennedy lost trust in his military advisors after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, it was Bobby he turned to for advice. Bobby played an especially influential role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the most tenuous moment of the entire Cold War.

During the crisis, Bobby served on the President’s Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCom), a group of individuals who strategized the U.S.’ response to the Soviet’s missiles in Cuba. He also worked quietly through a secret Soviet backchannel to negotiate a peaceful removal of the missiles, thereby helping the U.S. avoid nuclear war.
A black and white photo of RFK on the left.  Several children are gathered on his right.
Senator Kennedy visits impoverished children in the Mississippi Delta, 1967.

Dan Guravich. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The Senate

Following President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Bobby briefly served as attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In August of 1964, Bobby resigned and then ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate representing the State of New York. This was his first time running for public office in his own right.

The campaign was not easy. Bobby had lived in Westchester County, NY from 1927 to 1942, but his opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, called him a "carpetbagger” and an opportunist taking advantage of his brother’s legacy. Bobby struggled with the loss of his brother and pondered how he could best carry on John’s legacy while also moving out of his shadow. Despite these hardships, he persisted and, with President Johnson’s support, he won the election.

As Senator, Bobby’s attention focused on the marginalized and dispossessed. Senator Kennedy instituted the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration-Corporation, which sought to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in impoverished areas in Brooklyn, NY. Kennedy also served on the Senate’s subcommittees on Migratory Labor and Poverty. This allowed him to travel to places like California, where Caesar Chavez’s hunger strike for migrant farm workers’ rights was taking place; a Native American reservation; urban housing projects; and the Mississippi Delta, where he saw impoverished Black children. These travels shaped Senator Kennedy as he considered the holistic needs of the country.
A color photo of RFK shaking hands in a crowd of people
Senator Kennedy greets supporters at the Orange County Airport, CA, June 2, 1968.

Sven Walnum Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Boston.

The 1968 Campaign

On March 16, 1968, Senator Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. He had been reluctant to run against a sitting president from his own political party, but he was eager to address the issues of civil rights, poverty, and the Vietnam War, which he believed President Johnson was handling poorly.

As Kennedy embarked on his presidential campaign, there were certain challenges he realized he had to overcome. He, unlike his brother John, was not as easily charismatic or confident. At first, he was quiet and nervous speaking in front of the crowds that gathered for him. At times, he stumbled with his words and his voice and hands shook from nerves.

However, as the campaign progressed, Senator Kennedy gained confidence in himself. He realized the crowds were there to see and support him for who he was, and not just because he was seen as the forbearer to his brother John’s legacy. Overtime, he became more polished at articulating his thoughts regarding the issues he so deeply cared about. Senator Kennedy had originally favored intervention in Vietnam. However, as the situation there worsened, his position changed and he took an anti-war stance.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy was scheduled to deliver a campaign speech that night in Indianapolis, IN to a crowd of predominantly Black Americans. As he delivered the shocking news of King’s assassination, he empathized with his supporters and encouraged them to find peaceful and productive ways to channel their sorrow. (Watch the speech)

As violence broke out across many American cities that evening, Indianapolis stayed peaceful. John Lewis later remarked, “He {Kennedy} became the one man who could soothe the savage pain that swept through the city of Indianapolis, and there were no violent outbreaks there. I do remember calming my own sorrow in that dark hour by thinking, Dr. King is gone, but we still have Bobby."

Only two months later, and just after winning the Democratic presidential primary in California, Kennedy was fatally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, CA. He died on June 6, 1968 at age 42.
A black and white photo of RFK in a suit.  He is smiling and looking upward.
Senator Kennedy speaks at a campaign event at the Ambassador Hotel, CA, June 2, 1968.

Sven Walnum Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Boston.


Bobby Kennedy’s ability to empathize with people attracted supporters from all backgrounds, especially minorities, and he became a symbol of hope during a turbulent decade in the United States. His legacy continues through the nonprofit, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. The nonprofit continues the work of Bobby Kennedy, advocating for human rights and social justice. Each year, the organization gives out several awards: the Ripple of Hope Award; the Human Rights Award; the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, all of which promote and reward activism and work done towards achieving the more equitable and just world Bobby envisioned.

In 1995, President Clinton visited Indianapolis' Martin Luther King Jr. Park to dedicate the “Landmark for Peace” memorial commemorating the site where Robert Kennedy delivered his immortal words on the night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. In 2018, the site was added to the African American Civil Rights Network.

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply 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.” -Edward M. Kennedy, an excerpt from his eulogy of Robert Kennedy, July 8, 1968.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site

Last updated: August 8, 2021