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Southern Illinois mourned with the nation when Robert Kennedy was killed 50 years ago

Q: The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Bobby Kennedy is this week. Did he ever visit the metro-east?

A: Mere months after the 1968 murder of civil rights activist, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the early hours of June 5, 1968. He died the next day.

At the time, the bishop of Belleville said the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and King "tarnished" the image of America. The Junior Chamber of Commerce lined Belleville's Main Street with flags in Robert Kennedy's honor.

About two years before his death, in October 1966, Kennedy was in East St. Louis to drum up support for Illinois Sen. Paul H. Douglas who was up for re-election and facing Republican and businessman Charles Percy in the polls.

The month before, in September 1966, one of Percy's twin daughters was brutally murdered in his family home in Kenilworth. Her murderer was never found.

Douglas and Percy called a two-week hiatus on campaigning after the murder to give the Percy family time to cope with the tragedy. Percy went into seclusion during that time.

When the hiatus was over, Kennedy appeared in East St. Louis with Douglas in October 1966. A few days later, Percy made an appearance in East St. Louis with his own supporters.

The Belleville News-Democrat estimated about 2,000 metro-east residents showed up for the event, which took place at the intersection of Missouri and Collinsville Avenues in East St. Louis.

A few of the readers of the BND remembered Kennedy coming to town, but they were children at the time and had no further comment on the event. It was, they said, a mere 52 years ago.

Robert Ellis was 20 years old and said he remembered the event well. In an email, Ellis said, "I was a huge fan of President Kennedy and of Bobby and I was very excited to see him."

He said the crowd sang a song to welcome Kennedy to East St. Louis. Ellis said, "We rehearsed the song before Bobby arrived with the people who planned the rally. The song went 'Well hello, Bobby. This is St. Louis, Bobby. It's so nice to have you back where you belong. You're looking swell, Bobby, etc.'"

Before Kennedy spoke, area bands performed and local politicians gave a few speeches to "warm up the apprehensive crowd" and "directed the audience to applaud on cue."

Kennedy in East St. Louis

As he stood before the crowd, Robert Kennedy invoked the spirit of his deceased brother, President John F. Kennedy, and said his brother considered Douglas "probably the most outstanding senator of this century."

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Sen. Robert Kennedy and dignitaries on a grand stand on the corner of Missouri and Collinsville Avenues in East St. Louis in October 1966. Belleville News-Democrat archives

Robert Kennedy said, "Nobody is more responsible than Sen. Douglas for social, economics and civil rights progress made in recent years." He also called Douglas "the conscience of the U.S. Senate."

Sen. Douglas, who was 74-years-old and running against the 47-year-old Percy, was banking on his expertise in government to win the election.

Kennedy emphasized this history of service in his speech. "The Kennedys are associated with civil rights and the Democrats are associated with civil rights, but Sen. Paul Douglas was one of the first to fight for civil rights in this country," Kennedy said.

He criticized Chicago newspapers for their support of Percy and their use of, what he believed to be, biased polling.

Kennedy said, "The pollsters stood in front of banks, talked to people and then interviewed some bank presidents. And guess what, the Republicans were ahead." Then, he asked the crowd to cheer the loudest for who they would vote for, Republicans or Democrats.

Despite the Democratic party receiving the loudest cheers in East St. Louis, Douglas lost the 1966 election to Percy.

Eight bullets fired

In the days before Kennedy's assassination in June 1968, the Associated Press reported he had a premonition of his death. During his campaign for the democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy said, "I play Russian roulette every time I get up in the morning."

He said, "Of course, I worry about what would happen to my family, to the children. But they're well taken care of, and there's really nothing else I can do, is there?"

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Robert Kennedy in East St. Louis. October 1966. Belleville News-Democrat archives

In an Associated Press article by Saul Pett published in the BND in the days after Kennedy's assassination, Pett opined Kennedy braved the crowds, despite the dangers, to show he wasn't afraid of potential assassins.

In contrast, since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Johnson rode in closed motorcades.

Robert Kennedy, however, threw himself into crowds, kissed babies, shook hands and mingled with very little protection from the mobs. Pett reported, "He would do what he thought necessary to win."

The night he was shot, Kennedy was celebrating winning the California democratic nomination for president at the Ambassador Hotel.

Sirhan, a 22-year-old Palestinian-born Jordanian citizen, fired eight shots from an Iver Johnson Cadet .22 caliber pistol. Kennedy was hit with three bullets and one fragmented in his brain.

At the time, it was reported in a United Press story that even if Kennedy had survived "his life would have been a grave and devastating existence. Doctors estimated his right side would have been paralyzed, Kennedy would have been unable to see things on his left and he may have had a 'Parkinson's Disease type' facial disorder."

Robert Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, near his brother, former President John F. Kennedy. His funeral Mass took place at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, on Saturday, June 8, 1968.

'Too terrible for words'

Religious and secular leaders alike condemned the assassination.

The Junior Chamber of Commerce installed an "avenue of flags" in downtown Belleville to mark a national day of mourning for Kennedy.

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A crowd of an estimated 2,000 people gathered in East St. Louis in October 1966 to hear Robert Kennedy speak. Belleville News-Democrat archives

The Rev. Albert R. Zuroweste, the bishop of Belleville in 1968, wrote, "The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and now Robert Kennedy have stigmatized our democratic way of life as ruthless, immoral and pagan. The image of America has been tarnished and every American feels something must be done immediately to change the course of events."

Methodist Bishop Lance Webb said, "Man seems ready to destroy humanity. Everything we believe in seems to be coming apart."

Rep. Thomas F. Railsback, R-Ill., said, "It makes one think that we are living in a sick country and a sick world."

State Treasurer Adlai Stevenson III said, "It's too terrible for words."

Coretta Scott King, the widow of the slain Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said, "How many husbands, how many fathers and how many sons must die before we as men, women, youths and children — before we as a nation — will rise up in righteous indignation and demand an end to senseless violence?"

Seeking the causes of violence

Answering the call to discover why the assassinations were occurring, President Johnson appointed a 10-member panel to "seek the causes of violence of the sort that struck down Robert F. Kennedy." It was called the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

The head of the panel was Milton S. Eisenhower, one-time president of Johns Hopkins University and brother of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In a report, the panel said, "To be a young, poor male; to be undereducated and without means of escape from an oppressive urban environment; to want what the society claims is available (but mostly to others); to see around oneself illegitimate and often violent methods being used to achieve material success; and to observe others using these means with impunity — all this is to be burdened with an enormous set of influences that pull many toward crime and delinquency."

Among other things, the panel recommended educational and training programs, especially in inner cities, and adoption of a national firearms policy to limit the general availability of handguns.

Suggested reading

"Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis" by Robert F. Kennedy was published in the days following his assassination. It has been praised for its behind-the-scenes view of the crisis.

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