On November 4, 2008, at 11:00 pm, Robert Kennedy finally won.
Forty years after his assassination shattered dreams and brought his quest to change America to a sudden, brutal halt, Robert Kennedy reached the goal that had been denied him in life.
He was not yet 43 years old during that far away winter and spring of 1968 when hundreds of thousands of young and not so young Americans were inspired by his words, his hopes, his vision for our country. We were mired in a war we could not possibly win and from which our President, a decent man, could not walk away. Our cities were torn apart by a seemingly unbridgeable racial divide. Robert Kennedy had barely been in the U.S. Senate for three years. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the liberal standard bearer since his dramatic civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, had served in the Senate for 15 years, and Eugene McCarthy had also been in Congress since 1949, ten years in the House of Representatives and more than nine in the Senate. Both had valid claims on the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, but it was Kennedy who energized and electrified us.
"There are those who look at things the way they are," he said, "and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" We believed that he would try to end the Vietnam War. We believed that he would take Whites and African-Americans away from the precipice. We knew that he represented what we in our idealism wanted to become. Hours after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, he told a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis that "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
And then, like his brother and like Reverend King, he, too, was killed. Many sat out the 1968 election in despair or disgust. Many, most notably his brother and his children, kept his legacy alive. We tried to find his spirit in the McGovern campaign and in the Carter Administration. We recognized echoes of his voice in Bill Clinton's inaugural addresses. But it was not until a young African-American Senator from Illinois dared to seek the presidency that we seemed to be back on course.
And what now? Where do we go from here, now that Barack Obama has won? Much has changed in the past 40 years, but even more remains to be accomplished. In 1968 we faced enormous challenges but ended up with Richard Nixon, a protracted war and Watergate. And then we spent years looking backward, often wistfully. We asked ourselves, what if? In 2008 we have wrested for ourselves a different future. Barack Obama represents not just change but hope, the same kind of hope that Robert Kennedy inspired in us. Only this time, we have been allowed to see if our hopes can be realized.
Menachem Rosensaft is a lawyer in New York City