When protests broke out across the South, the young attorney general confronted escalating demands for racial justice. What began as a political problem soon became a moral one. In the face of vehement pushback from Southern Democrats bent on massive resistance, he put the weight of the federal government behind school desegregation and voter registration. Bobby Kennedy’s youthful energy, moral vision, and capacity to lead created a momentum for change. He helped shape the 1964 Civil Rights Act but knew no law would end racism. When the Watts uprising brought calls for more aggressive policing, he pushed back, pointing to the root causes of urban unrest: entrenched poverty, substandard schools, and few job opportunities. RFK strongly opposed the military buildup in Vietnam, but nothing was more important to him than “the revolution within our gates, the struggle of the American Negro for full equality and full freedom.”
On the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Kennedy’s anguished appeal captured the hopes of a turbulent decade: “In this difficult time for the United States it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in.” It is a question that remains urgent and unanswered.