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A Misguided Memorial to a Great Man

Saving site where Robert Kennedy fell ignores the meaning of his life, his son says.

September 23, 2004|Maxwell Kennedy | Maxwell Kennedy lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a World War II history for Simon & Schuster.

My father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968, just after winning the California Democratic primary for president. He loved California and everything this state represents to the rest of the nation. He traveled into Watts with his friend Rafer Johnson. He swam on the beaches at Malibu. And he took my siblings and me to Disneyland the day before the primary.

I was just 4 when he died, and it was only years later that I learned of his many accomplishments -- among them, helping to integrate the universities of the South, fighting for the Voting Rights Act, working to bring good jobs to people who had none and standing up against corrupt union officials. He also spoke out against the war in Vietnam. He'll be remembered for these acts and many more.

Now the Los Angeles Unified School District is planning to build a school on the site of the hotel where he was shot. And even though the district is seriously underfunded, the school board is considering preserving the assassination site at a projected cost of $2 million.

It is true that some assassination sites have been preserved in this country. One may still see a play at Ford's Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot, or travel to Memphis, where the site of Martin Luther King's assassination is now a museum, or visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas. A valid argument could be made that these are important places of national memory. But an equally strong argument could be made against these gruesome reminders of America's violent history.

The site where President McKinley was killed was not preserved, nor the site of the murder of Malcolm X. There is no plaque marking John Lennon's assassination at the entrance to the Dakota apartment building -- only a far more fitting garden in Central Park, called Strawberry Fields, that allows admirers to remember him with dignity and life.

My uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, concluded his eulogy for my father with these words: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

The Ambassador Hotel has nothing to do with who my father was, or what he tried to do with his life. Historical preservation should be about spending our limited resources to save those places and things that give us a tactile sense of a particular time or place, or a person of some significance.

There is a photograph of my father with Cesar Chavez, when the United Farm Workers leader ended his 25-day fast, that always brings me back to that time, when a man of some power, the brother of the president of the United States, would travel across the nation to break bread with a farmworker. That photo, beamed around the world, encouraged all of us to stop and think about who these two men were and what had brought them together -- and what that meant for the rest of us.

The best way to honor my father's memory is to build the places he cared about and the places people need, not to perpetuate the ones that meant nothing to him. I can imagine few things that would irritate him more than having a financially strapped urban school board spend $2 million -- money that should go to after-school programs or books or teachers' salaries -- to preserve a site of misery.

Los Angeles should not be memorialized as the city where Robert Kennedy was killed. Rather it should be remembered as a city where he made friends in every community, where he won overwhelming approval for his presidential campaign, and where he found undying support for his belief that we can be a better country than history tells us we have been. It is a city where millions still share his vision of America and ask, "Why not?"

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