The parallels between 2020 and 1968 were already striking. A murder that shocked the conscience of a nation, leading to racial strife, an outbreak of urban violence, and a sharp turn to radicalism in a pivotal presidential election year. Substitute George Floyd for Martin Luther King. Jr., and what we witnessed in last year’s summer from hell was hauntingly familiar to those who lived through the bad old days of the late ’60s when the country appeared to be collapsing in a heap.
For a people already balkanized by a war gone badly off the rails, the shocking assassination of MLK and racial unrest that followed, the final nail in the coffin of that awful summer 53 years ago, the one which created a purple haze of depression and anxiety across the land, was the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, just two months after King had been gunned down.
And now, in what we hope is a final reminder of the time warp in which we seem to be living, the convicted assassin of RFK is set to be released. On Friday, in his 16th parole hearing since receiving a life sentence, 77-year-old Sirhan Sirhan was deemed to no longer pose a threat to society by a California parole board panel, which voted 2-0 in favor of his release. Approval of the full parole board and the sign-off of Governor Gavin Newsom are now required for this notorious assassin to become a free man.
Sirhan employed the argument of time served and lessons learned in pleading with the two parole commissioners: “Over half a century has passed, and that young, impulsive kid I was does not exist anymore … Senator Kennedy was the hope of the world and I injured, and I harmed all of them, and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed.”
It is inarguable that Sirhan’s actions altered the course of history. After a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 presidential race, RFK had filled the void and pumped life into the young liberals, gaining currency in the Democratic Party with his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and support for civil rights. His death, just as he had seized the momentum in the primary race with a huge victory in California, left Vice President Hubert Humphrey, tied to the failures of LBJ, as the Democratic nominee, and ultimate loser to Richard Nixon. Many if not most informed observers believed RFK, on the wings of his martyred brother and unencumbered by the millstone of Vietnam, would have prevailed over Nixon.
The impending release of Sirhan will surely dredge up suspicions around the assassination that remain alive, and not just among wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. There is much to legitimately question. While Sirhan admitted at his trial that he shot Kennedy, he also claimed to have no memory of doing so, leading to credible reports that he may have been subjected to coercive hypnosis, as depicted in The Manchurian Candidate. Evidence has also emerged over five decades that as many as 13 shots were fired, while Sirhan’s gun held only eight rounds. Most perplexing is the autopsy report concluding that Kennedy was shot at point-blank range from behind, when Sirhan was standing in front of him.
Eve of Destruction? Maybe Not
Given the legendary JFK assassination subculture and the substantive questions about that awful day in June of 1968 which remain unanswered, it is quite shocking that relatively little residual controversy surrounds the murder of RFK. Alternate theories have gained credibility with the statement by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in a 2018 article in a prominent Washington newspaper, that he does not believe Sirhan killed his father.
Sirhan’s pending release comes five years after another would-be assassin, John Hinckley, was set free following 34 years of confinement for shooting President Ronald Reagan. A judge asserted that Hinckley’s mental illness had been in full and sustained remission for decades and that under appropriate conditions, Hinckley was no longer a danger to himself or others and was granted permission to live with his mother.
Squeaky Fromme, who brandished an unloaded gun* near President Gerald Ford in 1975, served 34 years before her parole in 2009. Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate Ford in 1975, was released from prison in 2007, after serving 32 years.
So, as we revisit – if only for a moment – a time of great tribulation strikingly similar to these last painstaking months, we invoke another ghost of what might have been but never was, half a century ago. Perhaps the best we can draw from yet another reminder of the trials still fresh in the minds of millions is the realization that, even through a year like 1968, a ruinous war, twin history-altering assassinations, division, and upheaval gripping the land, we lived to fight another day.
* correction from original article which stated that Fromme shot at Ford.
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