Remembering Robert Kennedy

Paul Schrade is the former western regional director of the United Auto Workers Union and was the labor chair of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. He was shot in the forehead in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, alongside Robert Kennedy, who was fatally wounded that night.

Amidst all the remembrances of the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's death this week, I am reminded that today would have been his brother Robert Kennedy's 88th birthday. I first met both John and Robert Kennedy in 1956, when I was working with United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.

After Robert Kennedy successfully managed JFK's campaign for the presidency in 1960, he was appointed Attorney General and the brothers became full partners in fulfilling the Kennedy Administration's commitment to a world at peace and social justice for all Americans.

Bob played many key roles in his brother's administration, far beyond his official duties as Attorney General. This included meeting privately with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to help end the Cuban Missile Crisis and dealing directly with Governor George Wallace when he attempted to block Alabama's schoolhouse doors to black students.

As Labor Chair in Bob's presidential campaign in 1968, I was with him in those final hours when he won the California primary. As we walked away from the stage after his victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel, he asked me to join him at his press conference. He shook hands with busboy Juan Romero in the hotel's pantry and then we walked directly into gunfire. Bob knew I was hit first because he asked "Is everybody OK? Is Paul all right?" as he lay fatally wounded -- always more concerned about others than himself.

I was lucky. If the bullet that hit me in the forehead had been a fraction of an inch lower, I would have been killed instantly. Instead, I survived and, after several years of recovery, I was asked to take part in legal efforts to discover all the facts about the shootings -- specifically serious questions about whether Sirhan Sirhan had acted alone that night. As painful as it was for me to pursue, I knew that Americans deserved to know the truth about what really happened to Robert Kennedy, whose death -- like the death of President Kennedy -- changed the course of American history forever.

As my friend the late Congressman Allard Lowenstein eloquently put it when we first began examining the evidence surrounding Bob's death almost forty years ago:

"Robert Kennedy meant as much as he did to as many as he did because he was the legatee of his brother and his death hurt as much as it did partly because he died so early and so wrongly. But the totality of loss was far greater than these parts, for with him went the spirit of a generation. When he was killed, so was something generous and electric in us and in the nation, something not yet reborn and possibly not to be reborn in our lifetime. We were left instead with a scar that does not ease with time, and with leaders whose bleakness reminds us constantly of what might have been."

Unanswered questions are still being pursued about the deaths of both John and Robert Kennedy. This week, a Gallup poll revealed that 61% of Americans continue to reject the "lone gunman" theory about the tragedy in Dallas. It is not a great stretch to conclude that this skepticism should be extended to the official version of what happened to his brother five year later in Los Angeles.

After the Sirhan trial, then Los Angeles District Attorney Evelle Younger promised "full disclosure" of all the evidence surrounding what happened to Bob Kennedy, me and the four others who were wounded that awful night. But those files were immediately locked up by the Los Angeles Police. When they were eventually released to the California State Archives, they suddenly "discovered" that key evidence was either missing or destroyed.

Someday, hopefully soon, there will finally be full disclosure of these answers to the American people. The legacy of John and Robert Kennedy deserves no less.