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50 years later — reflections on Kennedy’s historic Madera visit

In 1981, President Reagan, with his signature grace and civility, declared of Robert Kennedy, “He roused the comfortable. He exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen, and renewed and enriched the American conscience.” A half-century later, Reagan’s truth seems just as clear.

June 6, 1968, bears a special place and a solemn reminder in the hearts and minds of many people inspired by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. While the two of us were not born yet, that fateful day in 1968 has inspired us, through Kennedy’s life and legacy. The issues and challenges of the 1960s very much remain relevant today and his legacy still calls subsequent generations to act on convictions of equality and dream of a better future. June 6, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination after winning California’s Presidential Primary, and Madera shares a unique place as part of that history, as Bobby had campaigned here just days before on Thursday, May 30th 1968.

This tragedy, compounded by the assassinations of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the war in Vietnam, and tumultuous violence that stained the nation during the sixties, left a consequential impression on our country, bending its trajectory and causing deep despair and fear for many. These feelings — and the rawness they represent even 50 years later, are hard to comprehend and realize. Therefore, we would like to invite the public to help share their own experiences by joining us for two special events commemorating Bobby’s visit to Madera, beginning on Wednesday, May 30, 5:30 p.m. at the Madera County Library and Thursday, May 31, 7 p.m. at Movies Madera for a screening of “A Ripple of Hope.”

The campaign leading up to Bobby’s visit to Madera:

Only three months before, Bobby Kennedy had announced his candidacy in the Old Senate Chamber, where his brother had stood eight years prior to Bobby’s appearance to pursue “policies to end bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.”

His message, both as a U.S. senator and during his short, 80-day campaign for the presidency, took him to many corners throughout the country, where he sought to understand by seeing and by listening, to bridge the divides of a nation torn apart by violence, racial inequality, and poverty. After his brother’s murder, RFK immersed himself in scripture and poetry to reignite his mission. Religious conviction brought his values into alignment with the poor and broken.

He once said, “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Bobby Kennedy was tormented by the extent of poverty and hunger, and traveled to coal areas of eastern Kentucky, rural communities of the San Joaquin Valley, poor neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and to the Mississippi Delta, where he saw the “ugly deprivation” causing starvation among children. He courageously addressed the challenges of the time, evolved as he learned and addressed what he saw from a moral perspective.

His presidential campaign represented some of the most dramatic and consequential periods in our nation’s history. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proved just that. Fearing riots, his advisors requested him to cancel a scheduled campaign appearance in Indianapolis, but Kennedy wished to address the people, many of whom who were African American and unaware of what had happened to Dr. King in Memphis. Speaking from a flatbed truck, Kennedy broke the news, and as many wept in sadness, Kennedy delivered what has become one of the most profound speeches of our time, emphasizing with his audience:

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

He called for an end to division, violence, and called to action “love, wisdom and compassion toward one another.” Indianapolis was one of few American cities that did not riot that night.

When it came to the face of poverty, Bobby was familiar with the struggle here at home in the San Joaquin Valley. He frequented the Central Valley, more than once, commissioning U.S. Senate hearings in Delano in 1966 on the working and living conditions of farm laborers. He returned to join Cesar Chavez’s fast in 1968, and it was aboard a plane to the Central Valley, that he expressed his intent to pursue the Presidency.

Weeks later, and just a few short days before his assassination, Bobby stopped at the Train Depot in Madera’s Downtown with his pregnant wife, Ethel, on Thursday, May 30, 1968. Hundreds of supporters assembled, filled with excitement to see the flag bearer of the Kennedy legacy. Local dignitaries like Mayor John Wells and Council Member Eddie Boyle campaigned alongside RFK. Supporters can be seen holding signs, “Kennedy Will Win” and “Campesinos for Kennedy.”

Standing from the back of his campaign train, Kennedy proclaimed, “these are difficult days and I come to Madera to seek your help.” His stump speech included ending the bloodshed in Vietnam, expanding education opportunity, replacing welfare with jobs and new industry, and tied in Madera’s agricultural heritage, adding, “I’m delighted to be here in Madera County and delighted to be able to eat so many of your grapes.”

He had fun with the audience, playfully asking whether his opponents Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey had visited Madera County, calling into question whether or not they cared about Madera. Unfortunately, though, the excitement surrounding Bobby’s whistle-stop visit to Madera would be overshadowed by the tragic events that would transpire days later.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of this special piece of history, members of the public are invited to take part in two special events. On Wednesday, May 30, 5:30 p.m. at the Madera County Library, organizers will be hosting an event that will include remembrances shared by people who campaigned with Kennedy, student speakers who will bring his words to life, and an exhibit featuring photographs and never-before-seen footage that’s been obtained by the California Room at the Library. Following Wednesday’s event, members of the public are invited to attend a free screening of “A Ripple of Hope”, a documentary film on Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The screening will take place at Movies Madera Thursday, May 31st at 7 p.m.

All are welcome to attend and reflect on this important piece of history that Maderans share with Robert Kennedy, his life and legacy.

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Will Oliver represents Council District 3 on the Madera City Council. Todd Lile is superintendent of the Madera Unified School District.

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