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The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, through the eyes of a college girl

June 05, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • Election night in the California primary, June 5, 1968 -- young people, some of them not even old enough to vote, rally for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel where, within a few hours, Kennedy will be assassinated.
Election night in the California primary, June 5, 1968 -- young people,… (Los Angeles Times )

The spring and summer of 1968 were an agony for the United States, especially for young Americans and black Americans.

In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, here in Los Angeles, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on Wilshire Boulevard. And in August, police in Chicago beat and gassed young people protesting the Vietnam War and the political system at the Democratic National Convention.

Wednesday -- tonight -- is the 45th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. He died the next morning.

PHOTOS: The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Three months earlier, a Kansas college student named Nancy Perry began a journal, a gray cloth-bound volume, with accounts of some of those months, and, 17 years later, just one last entry, in Glendale.

I found it in a thrift store in Glendale about 10 years ago, and thanks to the Internet, I’ve deduced it was the work of Nancy Jo Perry, born in Kansas in June 1948, a woman who became a film and television editor and died here in L.A. in July 1997, not long after her 49th birthday.

She was 19 years old when she began this journal. The ardent passion of her fledgling politics in the upheaval of that epoch comes through from the first entry, on St. Patrick’s Day 1968, as a student at Kansas State University, watching newly minted presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy on “Meet the Press.”

Do 19-year-olds still care so intensely and write so intensely about politics? Are they anywhere near so hopeful, so eager, so attentive, so invested in the system and its ability to right its own wrongs?

Remember that in 1968, Nancy Perry wasn't even old enough to vote. At 18, you could be drafted to be sent to Vietnam, as young people pointed out, but you couldn't have a say in the choice of leaders who sent you there. Americans under 18 couldn't cast a ballot until three years later, with the 26th Amendment in 1971. 

March 17, 1968: “I’m not sure just now but I’m beginning to lean toward support of RFK. I’ll have to do some research about his views before I commit myself entirely -- I’ll sure have some fights with Grandpa if I do.”

March 18, 1968: [Kennedy spoke at the university] “… a weird day. I was very impressed by RFK … he’s very dynamic -- a wonderful person to listen to.... It seems to me that RFK offers the dynamic, ‘let’s-get-something-done’ type of presidential candidate I’ve been looking for…. I think he offers an approach to the problems of the U.S., of the world -- of humanity -- that I can identify with. THIS is better than dropping out completely -- which I had seriously considered earlier.”

May 10, 1968: “Rocky [Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller] spoke here Tuesday -- but nothing -- nada! Seems Kennedy has the only chance … looking at the political situation, seems that the tremendous amounts of young & college people involved in politics this year is their way of trying to express their dissatisfaction with ‘The American Scene’ -- they want to do something constructive -- like me. Two weeks ago I went to Omaha to campaign for Kennedy … not too shocked at conditions -- just the people’s attitudes [about RFK] -- ‘He’s just too generous with those damn niggers!’ … The rally was plenty exciting too -- got a Kennedy banner out of the whole thing.”

June 4, 1968 [on a trip to help the underprivileged in Latin America] “My first thought as I write the date -- how did the California primary come out? It’s really weird being cut off from the world completely!”

June 6, 1968: “A part of me died this morning at 1:44 PST. Kennedy talked about the frustration of youth -- well, I’ve got it. What is there now in the States? Or, as the Mexican papers say, Que pasa en los Estados Unidos? … It’s hard to believe that it’s actually true -- guess I don’t want to acknowledge the truth.”

June 7, 1968: “I’m still very sad & will be for a long, long time. Seems as though all reasons for trying are gone now -- I don’t know what I’ll do in political life now. Wait & work for Kennedy -- Ted -- later? One newspaper said Bob knew an attempt would be made on his life -- Oh God -- WHY??”

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