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On this day in 1968: RFK visits Detroit just before fatal shooting

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On this day in 1968: RFK visits Detroit just before fatal shooting

May 15, 2022 | 5:07 am ET
By Ken Coleman
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On this day in 1968: RFK visits Detroit just before fatal shooting
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U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in Detroit during a U.S. presidential campaign visit May 15, 1968 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

On May 15, 1968, presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) toured Detroit — only 23 days before he was killed in Los Angeles.

The five-hour visit came as the race for the Democratic nomination was heating up. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, also a Democratic presidential candidate, held a campaign stop in Detroit the previous day where he spoke to a gathering of Black clergy.

The men were locked into a battle with U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) for the Democratic nod and the national convention in Chicago was only weeks away in late August. 

Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had announced in March that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination. A growing backlash amid an escalating U.S. troop presence in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War played a major role in Johnson’s decision. Anti-war rallies were carried out across the nation, especially on college campuses like the University of Michigan and in cities like Detroit.

As early as March 1965, more than four dozen U of M professors staged a “teach-in” to protest American involvement in Vietnam. A campus chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held a Michigan State University rally of hundreds in November 1967. Signs read, “Too Many Have Died,” “Escalation Can’t Be the Only Answer” and “Let Us Spend Our Time and Money on Education and Medicine, Not War,” according to Lansing State Journal reporting.

During a Kennedy political rally held in a downtown Detroit public square named after his late brother, President John F. Kennedy, RFK was joined by former Michigan Gov. John Swainson who became a Wayne County Circuit Court judge. 

There, Kennedy spoke about the civil uprisings that had been carried out in cities like Los Angeles, Cleveland and Newark, N.J. in recent years. He criticized an unnamed Johnson administration official for predicting that urban backlash would continue for years. 

On this day in 1968: RFK visits Detroit just before fatal shooting
U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams in 1968. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

Kennedy’s Detroit visit came 41 days after America’s leading civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4 in Memphis, Tenn.

“If I’m president of the United States, I’m going to make it quite clear that we are not going to have violence in the United States,” said Kennedy, according to Windsor Star reporting.

During a portion of the Kennedy visit, he and his wife, Ethel, toured 12th Street in the Motor City, the epicenter of civil unrest in July 1967, the result of tension between Black residents and a largely white city police force. Seven months later, some of the storefronts on the business thoroughfare were buried beyond repair, yet still standing, albeit barely. Kennedy rode in a convertible sedan as neighborhood residents, most of whom were Black, cheered on the sidewalk. Others jogged alongside the slow-rolling sedan, while some were close enough to shake Kennedy’s hand.

The 42-year-old Kennedy was shot on June 5 as he campaigned in Los Angeles after having won the June 4 California Democratic Party presidential primary. Armed with a .22-caliber revolver, 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot Kennedy three times. Five other people were wounded. He died on June 6. Like his brother John, Robert F. Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

In January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom denied Sirhan, now 77, release from prison. Sirhan originally was sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

“Mr. Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Kennedy is among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Newsom wrote.