Every murder changes the course of history, some more than others.
One of the most consequential killings in our nation’s history was the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, then a presidential candidate. The great crime was committed by Sirhan Sirhan, a young anti-Zionist with a gun who was angry at RFK for his support of Israel.
Later that year, Americans would elect Richard Nixon.
Sirhan was sentenced to death. After the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, Sirhan would remain imprisoned for more than 50 years. In spite of his status as a model prisoner, Sirhan was denied parole 15 times. Now, at the age of 77, it appears that the killer of one of the most beloved political figures of the 20th century stands on the threshold of freedom.
Sirhan’s parole is not yet a done deal. It must be approved by the governor. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a lot on his plate these days: wild fires, COVID, and a recall election. But it will only take a moment for him to do was is right and just: Deny parole for Sirhan Sirhan.
Imagine a parole for John Wilkes Booth for killing Lincoln; or Nathuram Godse for shooting Gandhi; or for Lee Harvey Oswald, if he had survived Jack Ruby’s bullet; or for James Earl Ray, who died in prison for the sniper killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
I oppose the death penalty and am generally against a life sentence without the possibility for parole. But there are categories of murder — political assassination is one of them — in which the idea of the murderer walking free is profoundly offensive and an insult to justice.
Those who have come of age in recent years have had to experience the collective trauma of mass shootings. For us baby boomers, our wonder years were stained by political assassinations: JFK in 1963; Malcolm X in 1965; MLK and RFK in 1968.
I was a sophomore in a Catholic school on Long Island in 1963, sitting bored in an afternoon study hall when the intercom crackled to life. Instead of the voice of the principal, we heard a radio news report that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We sat shocked, looking at each other in disbelief. One student stood up from his desk and just stared up at the speaker as if he were hearing the voice of some cruel deity. That moment would prove to define us.
In June of 1968, I was home from college, weeks away from a trip to Oxford University with a group of American students. I was awakened early by the presence of both my parents, who had climbed the stairs to my room and stood over my bed. Something bad must have happened. They carried with them the news that RFK had been shot and killed in the immediate aftermath of two victories in the Democratic presidential primaries.
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I grew up in a very Republican family, at a time when New York produced moderate to progressive candidates such as Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, and Jacob Javits. I was only 20 years old in 1968, too young at that time to vote. But I could feel, in the age of Civil Rights and anti-war movements, my political affinities shifting to the left. After the shock of the news, I remember feeling deep sympathy for the Kennedy family, and then wondering “Who would do such a thing?”
His double name was Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab with Jordanian citizenship, a man who hated Israel, who easily got his hands on a handgun, who would shoot RFK in the hotel where he had recently delivered a victory speech.
RFK was only the second U.S. senator to be assassinated. Huey Long of Louisiana was the other. Bobby had represented New York, and I remember striding past him in front of a viewing stand for a Memorial Day parade. I looked up and thought that among the Kennedy brothers, he was the least handsome.
Days after Bobby’s death, my dad, who worked as a customs officer in New York City, drove me to midtown Manhattan where the casket of the fallen leader was displayed in front of the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When we arrived, we noticed the length of the line on Fifth Avenue. Dad drove me block after block after block — two, three miles, maybe more — until we reached the end of the line. He dropped me off.
I was struck immediately by how many people of color had lined up to mourn and pay tribute. I remember polite conversation among us. Someone was passing out water. Finally, we reached the cathedral. We walked slowly up the steps and down the center aisle. We approached the casket and the altar behind us. The emotions of the moment seemed to contain the experience of an entire nation.
A Black woman in front of me reached out to leave a fingerprint on the polished wood. I made a sign of the cross.
Like many Americans, I have long ago discarded the mythology of the Kennedy family. Camelot lasted a lot longer when King Arthur was in charge. But what remained was a feeling — embodied in RFK — that public service was a noble pursuit.
Moments after I saw the news of Sirhan’s imminent parole, I watched President Joe Biden address the nation on COVID, or was it Afghanistan? Behind him rested a bronze sculpture of Robert Francis Kennedy, created in 1968 in the aftermath of the senator’s assassination.
RFK’s best legacy lives on in that statue and in our collective memories of the man. The criminal who murdered him, and altered our history, should never be set free.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at email@example.com.