John Shearer: Chattanooga Reacted With Sadness To RFK Death 50 Years Ago

Wednesday, June 6, 2018 - by John Shearer
Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy

When the Chattanooga News-Free Press came out on June 5, 1968, it carried this giant headline at the top – “RFK critically shot.”

 

As most Chattanoogans knew by then, the tragedy occurred after the New York senator and Democratic presidential candidate had delivered his California Primary victory speech from a ballroom in the now-razed Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

 

Happy about defeating Eugene McCarthy, 46 to 42 percent, he was taking a shortcut through the kitchen on his way to the press room shortly after midnight when he was reportedly shot by a 24-year-old Jordanian name Sirhan Sirhan.

 

This shortcut would unfortunately cut short his life, and would bring sadness to many, including those who supported his idealism toward civil rights and helping the downtrodden and bringing the Vietnam War to a positive conclusion.

 

That included a few Chattanoogans, despite the town’s conservative majority.

 

And the fact that it occurred just two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated caused many here to wonder what was happening to the United States.

 

A check in the News-Free Press in 1968 on microfilm showed that this feeling of sad confusion was being reflected. As the editorial writer, likely Lee Anderson, wrote that day, “The awful assault on Sen. Bobby Kennedy is only the latest of too many incidences of violence of varying degrees.”

 

Reporter Buddy Houts, later known for his humorous car-testing columns, was anything but feeling funny as he took to the downtown streets to try to get the local reaction. For some reason, he wrote that no one wanted to have his or her name used when commenting.

 

One black woman schoolteacher did express frustration when she said, “It’s bad, bad, bad, but with this country and the way it is, almost anything can happen.”

 

Plenty of well-known Chattanoogans were not afraid to have their names mentioned as they showed obvious outrage and hurt, despite whatever political leanings they had. Civitan Club leader Gilbert Stein said, “I’m not a Kennedy fan, but I think it’s a terrible thing.”

 

Rotary Club of Chattanooga President John Guerry, meanwhile, simply said his heart was with all the Kennedy family.

 

University of Chattanooga President Bill Masterson added, “This is a powerful national tragedy. I’m so shocked by it, I hardly know what to say.”

 

The Tennessee congressional delegation also expressed anger over the death of the man who had spoken in Nashville less than three months earlier. U.S. Sen. Howard Baker said that the country must see that violence of this pattern is prevented in the future, while U.S. Rep. Bill Brock stated honestly, “I hope this will make our nation take a good look at itself.”

 

Gun control was in the news after the tragedy, although the perspectives seemed a little more collectively liberal than those of today.

 

Among the Hamilton County sheriff candidates, Eugene McGovern said the shooting pointed to the need for stricter gun laws, while Frank Newell said we did not need stricter gun laws, but stricter punishments.

 

Unfortunately, during the early morning hours of June 6, Sen. Kennedy died. The Free Press had this banner headline that day: “Sen. Kennedy dies of wounds; Sirhan Diary Set Killing.”

 

The latter was a reference to the fact that Sen. Kennedy had supported Israel in the Six-Day War with Palestine, and Sirhan Sirhan wanted to kill him on the anniversary of the beginning of that 1967 war, although some in 2018 wonder if he was the killer or only killer.

 

The News-Free Press editorial that day seemed to sound even more perplexed than the day before when it stated, “Frustrated citizens from one end of the country to another are shaken by the inability to seem to come to grips with the immediate and serious challenge to a society that we want to be ruled by law and order, not coercion and murder.”

 

Reporter Irby Park Jr. interviewed some people that day, and the consensus was that gun controls were favored here, but not a complete sales ban on guns.

 

On Saturday, June 8, as news broke about the arrest in England of James Earl Ray in the assassination of Dr. King, services were held for Sen. Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It was a day President Lyndon Johnson was calling a national day of mourning.

 

After the service, in one of the most touching scenes of outward support in American history, thousands turned out to salute his train as it made its way to Arlington National Cemetery by Washington, D.C.

 

Chattanooga gave an outpouring of love, too, during a special service at B’nai Zion Synagogue on Sunday and a Sts. Peter and Paul mass service led by editor John Popham of the Chattanooga Times, who had known the Kennedys.

 

It was said to be the first time locally a layperson had led a service at a local Catholic church.

 

As the years have passed, people have continued to remember Sen. Kennedy through his acts, words and even the heartfelt and sentimental song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” by Dion. Many wonder how different the United States would have been if he had lived and been elected.

 

Would he have made the late 1960s and early 1970s a more positive time socially and in foreign affairs like with the Vietnam War, or would he have been too liberal for many to unite the country?

 

We will never know, but what is for sure is that he galvanized a certain segment of the American population in a positive and upbeat manner like few other presidential candidates of recent decades. Perhaps only Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a conservative sort of way was also able to draw so articulately on the positive hope of the people.

 

On Wednesday, 4,000 of Sen. Kennedy’s family, friends and admirers are expected to be at Arlington National Cemetery to remember the former Harvard football player and University of Virginal law school grad and this positive hope for America he once pushed.

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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