Bobby Kennedy: Watts 1968
I’ve been a fan of Bobby Rivers since I first saw his VH-1 talk show in the late 1980’s. His funny, intelligent presence caught my attention and has stayed with me to this day. Recently, I was glad to find him on Twitter, and discover we share a love of classic movies, among other things. After seeing the RFK pieces on Tomfoolery, Bobby mentioned his own kiss with history with the Senator on a sunny afternoon in South Central Los Angeles in June of 1968. “Bobby was my hero,” Rivers told me. Upon hearing this, I asked him if he would write of that very special day in his life, and he was kind enough to do so. It’s an honor to post this. — OTOOLEFAN
By Bobby Rivers
I was a kid then, growing up in South Central Los Angeles. Our community was still physically and spiritually charred with the after-effects of the Watts Riots. We needed hope. Funny, hope was like an irresponsible dad that had been divorced out of your life. One who had said that he might show up on your birthday with something special. You’d wait and wait and wait. Maybe you saved him some cake. Maybe your ice cream had melted but you continued to wait for him to show up. It wasn’t even about the gift or gifts he might have brought. You just wanted him to show up. But he never did.
For thousands of us in the South Central L.A. area, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was that hope. And, one day, he showed up.
I attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Watts. Many of us in my class had known each other since first grade at a Catholic elementary school. To us, the Kennedys were heroes. The late John F. Kennedy had become the country’s first Catholic president. Robert F. Kennedy was following in his brother’s footsteps and running for the presidency. In the turbulent, violent, changing America of the 1960s, he seemed to absorb the pain of the poor into his soul. His campaign stops weren’t photo opportunities. We felt that he cared about us. He heard us. That son of wealth came to our poor neighborhoods and sat on our depressed front porches, looked us in the eye, asked us how we were and listened to the answers.
By that time, I’d already made up my mind that I wanted a career in broadcasting. I wanted to do things I didn’t see other Black people doing on TV. In February 1968, I got to stay up late enough to see the “Tonight” show. It came out of New York City then and Johnny Carson was on vacation for a week. Carson picked Harry Belafonte as his guest host. A big deal for the Black community! My parents and I watched together because it was historic. Black talent was not hosting network shows then. Belafonte had a stellar line-up that week: Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, The Smothers Brothers, Zero Mostel, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte battled NBC executives to book Dr. King, I was told by a former “Tonight” show staffer who worked there at the time. NBC brass felt that King was “too radical” and that sponsors would not be pleased. Belafonte won the battle. A couple of months later, Sen. Kennedy would be seen on network news informing Black Americans at a rally that our Dr. King had been killed. Kennedy’s heart was heavy. I felt that, in his grief, the fire of his political mission had intensified. His mission was to help heal our nation.
Senator and Mrs. Kennedy were coming to L.A. Not only that, he was scheduled to make an appearance in Watts just a few blocks from our high school late one school-day afternoon. According to the local news, his appearance was scheduled for about ten minutes after classes were done for the day. None of us could keep his mind on his lessons that afternoon. We wanted to run down to the park and see Bobby Kennedy in person. That was the buzz on campus. All our teachers — priests and lay teachers — knew it and did not mind. By today’s standard, it was if Jay-Z, Beyoncé, a couple of “American Idol” stars and a cast member from “Twilight” were coming to the community for a personal appearance. That’s how electric with anticipation the air at Verbum Dei High School was that day. Not for the in-person sight of music or movie stars, mind you. But for a politician!
I remember the sunshine when Bobby Kennedy arrived. It was a sunny day in early June with a sweet Southern California breeze. Most of the classrooms had the doors open to take advantage of that breeze. In the second to last class, we unexpectedly got announcements from the principal. Fr. Robinson told us the usual stuff — Student Council updates, sports practice news, etc. He’d saved the big announcement for last. Because the student body was so excited about the scheduled appearance of Sen. Kennedy to our community, classes would be dismissed early. You’d have thought our home-team had just won the World Series. Cheers erupted from every single classroom. Teachers were grinning, thrilled that these young Black and Mexican-American men had embraced the cause of a middle-aged politician. There I was, a teenager wearing a necktie (the parochial school requirement) standing along the side of South Central Avenue when the motorcade approached going well-under the speed limit. The car was a convertible. The senator had stood up on the back seat. Ethel was seated next to him. Tanned, lean, strong, smiling and robust, Bobby Kennedy had a charisma so overwhelming that it made me audibly gasp. He didn’t wear a jacket. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, ready for business. He cut a mean figure. His life-force, his spiritual magnetism was so powerful that it rendered some of us classmates immobile for just a moment. Then, as if on cue, we began shouting, cheering his name as we waved and ran behind the car, trying to touch his hand. Hope had arrived and the gift was enormous. I walked home later feeling as if I’d witnessed a miracle. Two days later, I awoke for school to the dark news. That hope had been taken away from us. Taken the same way President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been taken. I was young and afraid of the world.
One afternoon in 2006, I went to a Manhattan critics screening of “Bobby,” the film about various characters at the Ambassador Hotel when and where Sen. Kennedy was shot. Harry Belafonte is in the film. When I saw him onscreen, I thought back to when I was a kid in L.A. and was allowed to stay up to see him interview Bobby Kennedy on the “Tonight” show. I was working on a New York City morning radio show at that time as the weekly film critic. The movie was not a box office hit and not a great movie, but it had some good performances and touching scenes. The most touching one was delivered by Nick Cannon as a young RFK supporter from my neighborhood. When he spoke about how proud he was to run behind Bobby Kennedy’s car as it drove through South Central L.A., tears streamed down my cheeks. When the movie was over, we left the small screening room and headed to the elevators. The late Joel Siegel of ABC had just seen it too. He was telling others rather grandly that he’d been a speechwriter for Kennedy. I did not pipe up with “I was one of those Black kids running behind his car in Watts that Nick Cannon talked about” as I stood behind him. But I did notice that I was the only Black person at the screening. I thought of how few African-Americans I’d seen reviewing movies on network morning news show like Joel Siegel did. I wondered if Joel, a fine movie critic, ever noticed that racial detail as well as he noticed details on film. The message of Bobby Kennedy’s speeches still needs to be embraced.
Ex-VH1 talk show/Food Network TV host. Movie critic for ABC News & Whoopi Goldberg Premiere radio show. Major classic film fan. Find BobbyRiversTV on YouTube. Follow Bobby Rivers on Twitter @BobbyRiversTV. http://www.bobbyrivers.com/