Saturday, June 2, 2018

RFK, 50 Years On

This Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Somberback Saturday brings you a round-up from the pens of cartoonists from half a century ago.
"New Kid in the Neighborhood" by Alfred Buescher for King Features, May, 1968
Just to put things in context: Kennedy and Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had entered the 1968 presidential race as the more liberal alternatives to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. When LBJ withdrew from the race at the end of March, his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey (who should have had plenty of liberal cred of his own, but was tainted by association with Johnson's war in Vietnam) stepped in as the favored candidate of the Democratic establishment.

The Democratic nomination was still up for grabs when Kennedy won the California primary on June 5. After giving a victory speech to his supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he started through the kitchen toward the press room but was shot three times by Sirhan Bishir Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian. (Yes, I know that RFK Jr. thinks that Sirhan was innocent. George Plympton is no longer with us, but someone can ask Rosey Grier or Rafer Johnson who it was that they wrestled the gun away from.)

Kennedy died of his injuries some 25 hours later at the age of 42.
"The Brothers' Tragic Reunion" by Cy Hungerford in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 7, 1968
America and the world were in shock. Robert's brother, President John Kennedy, had been assassinated only five years earlier; and this was the second major assassination in the U.S. in only two months — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's killer had not even been caught yet. (James Earl Ray would be apprehended in London a few days after Bobby Kennedy's death.)

"Bookmarks" by Bill Mauldin in Chicago Sun Times, June 6, 1968
I'm sure that Cy Hungerford was not the only cartoonist to draw the "Tragic Reunion" of two of Joe Kennedy Sr.'s sons, but Bill Mauldin's cartoon is more representative of the craft. What I'm finding is that by and large, cartoonists and editorial writers went to their drawing boards and typewriters to argue that RFK's assassination, as horrible as it was, bespoke a larger problem in the United States.
"He Must Be Stopped," possibly by Ted Shearer in Baltimore Afro-American, June 8, 1968
In the above cartoon, Ted Shearer (I'm confident that he was an editorial cartoonist for the Afro-American chain of newspapers, although I can only speculate whether he drew any particular cartoon) listed seven leaders murdered in just over five years. His scorecard leaves room for more, but there isn't enough space in the entire cartoon to list all the other victims of gun violence in the 50 years since.

"Tell Me Again about Keeping the World Safe for Democracy" by Pat Oliphant in Denver Post, June, 1968
Pat Oliphant mused mordantly on what American soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam must have thought of the violence back home.

Our soldiers were not the only ones overseas taking notice.
"American Folklore: Choose Your Candidate" by Rob "Opland" Wout in De Vollskrant, Amsterdam, June, 1968
Time magazine described the rest of the world's perception of the U.S. as "a blood-drenched, continent-wide shooting range where toddlers blast off with real rifles, housewives pack pearl-handled revolvers, and political assassins stalk their victims at will." "America dreamed of a government of judges, but it suffers the law of violent people," declared Le Monde of Paris, where violent protests mere days before had nearly brought down the DeGaulle government.

"Violence" by John Yardley-Jones in Toronto Telegram, June, 1968
As it turned out, the assassin was an immigrant born in Jordan acting on behalf of a conflict halfway around the world from the U.S. According to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, Sirhan Sirhan's diary revealed that he was determined to kill Kennedy by June 5, the first anniversary of the Six-Day War in which Israel had occupied the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai peninsula.

"Always There Is a Black Spot in Our Sunshine..." by Stanley Franklin in Daily Mirror, London, June, 1968
Yet I came across no editorial cartoons illustrating the Mideast connection to the assassination; granted, I didn't check Ha'aretz, Ad-Dustour, or any other journal directly concerned. The Montreal Star glossed over the Palestinian connection and faulted U.S. racial injustices instead:
"It did not matter if Senator Kennedy's assailant was first believed to be a Mexican, and then a Cuban and then an Arab. The fact remains that in Harlem and Watts and every other Negro community... [assassins] exist as perpetual enemies, while the one figure who might have provided hope was removed forcibly from the arena."
Untitled, by Andy Donato in Toronto Telegram, June, 1968
Overwhelmingly, the Mideast Conflict and U.S. racial injustice took a back seat to The Gun as the root cause of America's tragedy. From within and without our borders came the demand for the U.S. to control its mass of weapons of destruction. And as has become depressingly predictable, the National Rifle Association, the 100,000-member strong enablers of our national nightmare, leapt into the fray to prevent any meaningful action from being taken.
"The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed" by Frank Benier in The Sun, London, June, 1968 
Guns don't kill people, only outlaws will have guns, registration leads to confiscation — any argument against gun control you have ever heard was already cliché in 1968. Supreme Court precedent still held that the first half of the Second Amendment established that it was about a collective right rather than an individual privilege, so the N.R.A. concentrated on the amendment's second half. (Republican majorities on the Court have since erased that "well-regulated militia" silliness.)
"How's Business?" by John Pierotti in New York Post, June, 1968
Time estimated the American arsenal to include anywhere from 50 million to 200 million handguns, shotguns, rifles, plus "uncounted machine guns, hand grenades, bazookas, mortars, even antitank guns." 3 million more were sold every year, 2 million of them by mail order sales. Some of those sales were driven by white fear of the urban riots breaking out in the 1960's, to say nothing of the lucrative market selling directly to the gangs and criminals White America was afraid of.
"In Cold Blood" by Paul Conrad in Los Angeles Times, June, 1968
The National Rifle Association had successfully quashed every attempt to regulate America's unregulated militia even after President Kennedy's assassination. Congress did manage to pass a ban on mail-order handguns, but President Johnson scoffed that the bill was a "watered-down" half-way measure.
"I Just Don't Know What This Country Is Coming To" by Herb Block in Washington Post, June, 1968
A number of Senators who had bent to the N.R.A.'s will in the wake of Rev. King's assassination, such as Hugh Scott (R-PA), Warren Magnuson (D-WA), Bill Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), Ed Muskie (D-ME), Mike Monroney (D-OK), and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), indicated support of a measure by Joseph Tydings (D-MD) to require licensing and registration for the purchase of a gun.
"So You Heard Another Shot..." by Bill Sanders in Milwaukee Journal, June 6, 1968
The Senate failed to pass the Firearms Registration and Licensing Act, and the N.R.A. successfully drove Tydings out of office in 1970.

Even among liberals, however, there was a recognition that America had a problem not just with guns, but with a culture that glorified violence.
"Make Your Move, Ringo..." by Jules Feiffer for Publishers-Hall Syndicate, June, 1968
As case in point — and because it's the only way to end this blog post on a somewhat lighter note — I have to bring you the climax of a story in "Dick Tracy" on the comics page that very same week. Sharing the page with Charlie Brown and Miss Peach, Chester Gould's police detective literally vaporized a criminal mastermind and a yacht full of henchmen and bathing beauties who had schemed to steal a shipment of gold bars from Diet Smith's mines on the moon. (You read that right.) Gould's moral in Friday's episode struck many readers, and not a few editors, as being the credo of assassins and terrorists:
"Dick Tracy" by Chester Gould in Chicago Tribune, June 7, 1968
Several papers, such as the Seattle Times and Greensboro News, deleted the strip that day or dropped the feature entirely.

Any counter-protests from the National Laser Association fell on deaf ears.


On second thought, there is a better way to end this post, and that is with a few words from Robert Kennedy's final speech to the crowd at the Ambassador Hotel:
"What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States over the period of the last three years — the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society — the divisions, whether it's between Blacks and Whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or on the war in Vietnam — that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country."

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