American Portraits

We Can Start to Work Together: Robert F. Kennedy, the 1968 Campaign, and Respect

In this lesson, students will review the words and actions of Robert F. Kennedy, who used his candidacy for the presidency in 1968 to spread a message of hope, justice, and respect.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

On Saturday, March 16, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Bobby) walked up to the microphones in the Old Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. He announced that he was entering the race for the Democratic nomination for president. He sought to evoke the memory of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in 1963 had left the American people with a widespread longing for the unfulfilled legacy of hope. Bobby Kennedy wanted to revive the idealism of his brother’s presidency-before the turbulence of the Vietnam War, urban riots, student and anti-war demonstrations, and assassinations of important political figures brought turmoil and chaos to the United States. Kennedy promised, “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies.” At first, he did not articulate a list of specific policies, but rather a vision of unity and leadership in an America that seemed divided and awry. He continued, “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party or even our country, it is our right to moral leadership on this planet.”…

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is respect an essential trait for civil society?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review the words and actions of Robert F. Kennedy, who used his candidacy for the presidency in 1968 to spread a message of hope, justice, and respect. They will achieve the following objectives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Robert F. Kennedy’s character as a leader, and his commitment to respecting all people.
  • Students will examine Kennedy’s understanding of respect as a necessary virtue.
  • Students will understand why cultivating respect affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will demonstrate respect in their own lives to protect freedom.

Background

1968 America was a turbulent time. On January 31, the Vietnam War changed when the North Vietnamese regular and guerrilla armies launched the surprise Tet Offensive in dozens of cities across South Vietnam and even stormed the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Saigon. While the United States ultimately re-took all the cities and won the battle, Americans were psychologically distraught as President Johnson had promised them that the war was almost won and nearing an end.

As a result, President Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term on March 31. On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, leading to race riots in more than hundred cities during the summer. In late August, violence erupted between young demonstrators and police in the streets of Chicago outside of the Democratic National Convention as television audiences watched. Meanwhile, inflation led to skyrocketing prices and factories closed as international competition began affecting American economic growth and jobs. It felt as if the fabric of American society was being torn apart.

Robert F. Kennedy lived during this era, and worked to ameliorate his nation’s problems. He served as the Attorney General during his brother’s presidency. In 1964, Kennedy won a massive electoral landslide to become a U.S. Senator from New York. In 1968, he decided to run for president based upon a message of hope and respect for all Americans, focusing on those who were dispossessed.

Vocabulary

  • Turbulent
  • Guerrilla
  • Tet Offensive
  • Saigon
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Democratic National Convention
  • Inflation
  • Electoral landslide
  • Dispossessed
  • Evoke
  • Legacy
  • Idealism
  • Coalition
  • Primary
  • Mystique
  • Ecstatic
  • Rhetoric
  • Resonate
  • Inexorably
  • Militants
  • Sirhan Sirhan
  • Requiem

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did Robert F. Kennedy demonstrate respect in order to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What was Robert F. Kennedy’s identity during the 1960s? To what extent do you see emphasis on the virtue of respect in his words and actions?
  • As he worked to influence American public life, how did Kennedy see his purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.
  • Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election that Changed America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
  • Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
  • Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkonmlkdeath.html

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