Fifty years ago, RFK’s speech at The Palestra on Vietnam

Senator Robert Kennedy gives a speech on campus at The Palestra during his presidential campaign on April 2nd, 1968

June 5, 2018 marks 50 years since Senator Robert Kennedy was shot on the presidential campaign trail. He was pronounced dead the following day. His assassination added to a period of intense political and social unrest in the country, with anti-war protests across college campuses, including at Penn.

Student protest in Logan Hall (now Claudia Cohen Hall), November, 1967

 The New York senator had recently announced his entry into the race on March 16, 1968, and President Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection on March 31.  On April 2, Kennedy and his wife Ethel made a whirlwind, four-hour tour of Delaware Valley engagements. A brief rally in downtown Philadelphia was followed by a speech at The Palestra. Classes were cancelled that afternoon. It was estimated that more than 11,000 people attended. 

The candidate’s speech called for an end to the Vietnam War through a negotiated settlement that would include the Vietcong. 

His speech also addressed the economic inequalities of the draft, and he raised the question why young men who could not afford college bore the responsibility of combat while their educated peers did not. Kennedy was committed to addressing poverty in the United States, and remedying housing legislation that was deeply divided across racial lines. 

As for young men who flee to Canada to avoid the draft, Kennedy spoke against granting them amnesty, out of fairness to those who stay in the U.S. and face penalties for avoiding the draft. 

“Everywhere the American people seek not revenge but reconciliation. They seek both at home and abroad solutions of friendship, not force. They seek an end to the war in Vietnam, not through withdrawal or escalation, but through a negotiated settlement in which both sides put away the tools of violence and killing, and labor instead at the conference table for an honorable settlement.”

Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. 

On June 5, shortly after midnight, Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following a victory speech upon winning the California primaries. Just 26 hours later, he was pronounced dead.

Former University President Gaylord P. Harnwell issued a statement that afternoon: “The entire community of the University of Pennsylvania is shocked and saddened by the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whose great personal abilities won him the respect of our faculty and student body, and whose concern for humanity gained for him the support of persons from all walks of life. The University stands for the reasoned resolution of social issues, and we mourn the loss of a national leader who stood for pacific rather than violent action and the conversion of bigotry to brotherhood.”