On June 8, 1968, a 21-car train carried the body of slain presidential candidate and New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy from New York’s Penn Station to Washington’s Union Station. The trip lasted eight hours — twice as long as expected — because more than 1 million people gathered along the tracks and milled in stations to honor their slain hero. In rural areas, boys sat in trees and hung from signs. At Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, onlookers linked arms and sang the “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” chorus of the Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” one of Kennedy’s favorite songs. At some stops, African American women fell to their knees.
The interracial nature of this outpouring of grief reminds us how his death shook so many Americans and left his supporters without a leader advocating for common ground between young and old, Black and White, hawk and dove. As the journalist Jack Newfield recalled, Kennedy’s death created a void on the American Left, paving the way for subsequent political polarization: “No one came after him who could speak simultaneously for the unemployed black teenager and the white worker trapped in a dead-end job and feeling misunderstood. Robert Kennedy had the right equilibrium between race and class within liberalism.”
But this hagiography underestimates the challenges confronting liberalism by 1968. The fractures developing in American society in the 1960s ripped apart the diverse coalition that had sustained the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Powerful social forces would make it difficult for any presidential candidate to forge a viable liberal coalition for decades to come.
For starters, it wasn’t even clear that Kennedy could have secured the Democratic presidential nomination. Only 15 states held primaries that chose about 40 percent of the party’s convention delegates. Party bosses and insiders, most of them beholden to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s arch-nemesis, chose the other 60 percent.
Kennedy hoped to use the primaries to convince the bosses that he would be a stronger general election candidate. But on March 31, when Johnson shockingly announced that he would not seek reelection, his support gravitated toward Hubert Humphrey, who, within days of formally entering the race, boasted that 1,200 of the 1,312 delegates needed for the nomination were already committed to or leaning toward him.
More important, the tensions tearing the nation apart were systemic, based on stubbornly embedded social problems that would not easily bend to the will of any politician. While Kennedy had his family name and brother’s legacy working for him, he had to contend with the baggage of public discontent surrounding the Democratic Party. The backlash against Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, which Kennedy supported and wanted to expand, had already led to Republicans gaining 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate in the 1966 midterm elections. Some White voters though these programs delivered benefits to undeserving minorities, while sticking them with the bill.
Furthermore, much of the belief that Kennedy could have forged a new coalition is either anecdotal, based on the large, enthusiastic crowds that attended his rallies, or from a limited body of polling data from Indiana and Nebraska. Yet while sympathetic journalists hailed his success in attracting Black and White working-class voters in Indiana, a study by his own aides revealed that he actually lost 59 of the 70 White precincts in Gary.
While the themes that Kennedy espoused — sacrifice, compassion and community — appealed to universal ideals, he always tempered that idealism with pragmatism. While campaigning for White votes in Indiana, he toned down his rhetoric about helping the poor and disenfranchised. He told parents that the federal government “can’t take over control or direction of schools” and complained that taxes were too high.