A Campaign to Unite the Nation:

Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Presidential Campaign in California

Photograph of Robert F. Kennedy (1967/1968) by Jesse M. Unruh Papers (LP236)California State Archives

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy dedicated much of his career to public service, fighting for civil rights during his tenure as U.S. Attorney General and against poverty while a U.S. Senator. His presidential campaign brought hope to those who supported him, believing that he could heal a nation plagued by racial divides, poverty, and the long and costly Vietnam War. Born in 1925 in Massachusetts to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1944-1946. Receiving a law degree from the University of Virginia, Kennedy passed the Massachusetts bar in 1951. He served as a special correspondent for the Boston Post in the late 1940s and with the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division in 1951. A year later, he left to play a key role in his brother, John F. Kennedy's successful campaign for U.S. Senate. In 1954, Robert F. Kennedy became the Chief Counsel for the Democratic Minority for the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and three years later served as Chief Counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities, focusing on labor issues. In 1960, he led John F. Kennedy's successful presidential campaign.

Robert F. Kennedy's Announcement of Presidential Candidacy Speech (1968) by Jesse M. Unruh Papers (LP236)California State Archives

Announcement of Presidential Candidacy

In 1961, Robert F. Kennedy was appointed by his brother President John F. Kennedy to serve as U.S. Attorney General, a position which he held until 1964. He served as a U.S. Senator representing New York from 1965-1968 and on March 16, 1968, announced his own candidacy for president. Running on a platform of social change and racial and economic justice, Kennedy aimed to unite a nation divided by war, violence, racial tension, and poverty. In his opening campaign speech, he stated, "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done that I am obliged to do all I can. I run to seek new policies--policies to close the gaps between black and white, rich and poor, young and old, in this country and around the world."

Photograph of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and former California Governor Edmund Gerald "Pat" Brown Sr. at a campaign event (1968) by Frank Cullen, Sr. Collection (2011-132)California State Archives

Kennedy's Campaign

Though some Democrats did not provide immediate support to Robert F. Kennedy's campaign, citing party loyalty to the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy quickly gained widespread support across the U.S. He won the primaries in Indiana, the District of Columbia, and Nebraska. His wide network of supporters grew with each speech and political rally. It soon became clear that the race in California would dictate the future of Robert Kennedy's campaign. A victory in California would demonstrate to the Democratic Party that Kennedy was a strong candidate for the November election, but a loss in California could end his campaign. California was a tough three-way race between democratic candidates Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Kennedy. It was a "winner takes all" primary with all 174 California delegates pledged in support of the winning candidate.

Robert F. Kennedy's Remarks for California Arrival (1968) by Jesse M. Unruh Papers (LP236)California State Archives

California in 1968

In the first half of the Twentieth Century, California experienced tremendous population growth and by 1968 had become the most populous state in the nation with more than 19 million inhabitants. Priority issues facing California voters during the 1968 Primary included poverty, civil injustice, and tensions over the Vietnam War. These were many of the same issues facing the rest of the nation. As Kennedy campaigned in California, he highlighted his support for addressing poverty, strengthening economic policy, tackling pollution, improving race relations, and finding an end to the Vietnam War. In a speech given on March 24, 1968, Kennedy said on his arrival to California, "This is a year of choice, for California and for the country. I have carried my campaign in primaries in Indiana, the District of Columbia and Nebraska. Now I come to the West Coast, where the issue will finally be decided."

Collage of Campaign Materials for Robert F. Kennedy's Presidential Campaign (1968) by Jesse M. Unruh Papers (LP236)California State Archives

Kennedy's California Campaign

Kennedy's California headquarters were established just northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Staffed by a large number of volunteers and campaign workers, the Robert F. Kennedy for President campaign canvassed voters and conducted the Get Out and Vote Program throughout the state. They offered assistance to voters and furnished slate cards listing all of the Democratic candidates. While campaigning, Kennedy visited areas throughout the state, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Fresno. He also dedicated time to visit California college campuses, like the University of San Francisco and San Fernando Valley College.

Photograph of Robert F. Kennedy and Dolores Huerta (1968) by Richard J. Alatorre Papers (95-07-10)California State Archives

Building Support

While campaigning in California, Robert F. Kennedy built alliances with civil rights and labor leaders throughout the state. He won support of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Bert Corona of the Mexican-American Political Association (M.A.P.A.) and Professor Ralph Guzman, the head of the Mexican-American Study Project at UCLA. Kennedy also met with African-American leaders in the Bay Area and the Northern California Black Caucus on multiple occasions to discuss voter issues, receiving support from activist Curtis Baker, publisher Tom Berkley, and members of the Black Panther Party. He also received support from Assembly Members Willie Brown and March Fong Eu, former astronaut John Glen, athletes Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier, and former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who also served as his California campaign manager. Kennedy's campaign events attracted thousands and at each stop he encouraged the crowds to register to vote.

Delegates to National Convention - Democratic Party Candidates Preferring Robert F. Kennedy (1968) by Jesse Unruh PapersCalifornia State Archives

California Primary Results

On June 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy won the California Primary. He collected 46% of the vote, winning over large numbers of African-Americans, Latinos, and working-class white voters, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Throughout the day, his campaign provided assistance for voters to get to the polls.  Later that evening, he gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. After his speech, Kennedy was led by the hotel maitre d'  through the kitchen pantry, which was full of people, including Kennedy friends, campaign staff, hotel staff, reporters, and photographers. 

Wrestling the gun from Sirhan Sirhan in the Kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel (1968-06-04) by Los Angeles Police Department Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Investigation CollectionCalifornia State Archives


As Kennedy made his way through the Ambassador Hotel pantry, he was followed by a security guard while his bodyguards remained behind assisting Ethel Kennedy from the podium. Without warning, an unknown assailant, later identified as Sirhan Sirhan, stepped out from behind a dish rack and began firing. In the pandemonium that followed, the hotel maitre d' and Kennedy's staff wrestled Sirhan to a steam table, as seen in this photograph.  Six people were wounded, including Kennedy, who was transferred to the Good Samaritan Hospital, where, tragically, he died the next day.

Sirhan Sirhan notebook page and mug shot (1968-06) by Los Angeles Police Department Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Investigation CollectionCalifornia State Archives

Sirhan Sirhan

Sirhan Sirhan was soon taken into custody by the Los Angeles Police Department. Sirhan, an immigrant from Palestine, was twelve years old when his family came to the U.S. in 1957.  In 1968, he lived in Pasadena with his mother and two brothers. At the time of his arrest, he was not steadily employed, and had no arrest record. Several witnesses later positively identified him as being at Kennedy rallies prior to June 4th. Pictured here is a page from one of Sirhan's notebooks that the Los Angeles Police Department found at Sirhan's home, which expresses his desire for Kennedy's assassination and notes how his "determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming more of an unshakable obsession." Also pictured is Sirhan's LAPD mug shot, dated June 5, 1968, after he was taken into custody. Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to death in 1969, but in 1972 his sentence was commuted to life when California's death penalty was overturned. He remains incarcerated in a California state prison. 

Prayer Offered in Assembly Chambers In Memory of Robert F. Kennedy (1968-06-06) by Jesse Unruh PapersCalifornia State Archives

In Memory of Robert F. Kennedy

On June 6, 1968, the California Legislature offered a prayer in memory of Robert F. Kennedy.  A deep sorrow was expressed in the words of the prayer: "Heavenly Father, we sadly mourn the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  There is little that we can say to express the emotions that we feel, our sense of loss, our sense of shame, our terrible need ... Help all of us, Father to learn from Senator Kennedy's final words."  The prayer, pictured here, included a few of Kennedy's final words: "What I think is quite clear is that we can work together ... and that despite what has been going on within the United States ... the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the divisions, whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam - that we can start to work together."

Photograph of Robert F. Kennedy (1967/1968) by Jesse M. Unruh Papers (LP236)California State Archives


Robert F. Kennedy's 82-day campaign provided inspiration to his supporters, their hope in his campaign to heal an America divided by war and civil conflict. Upon his death, the nation mourned with thousands lining the funeral route of the train that carried his body from New York to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1968, Kennedy's family and friends created the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights which today offers programs that draw on the experiences of Kennedy's life from his global travels, time served on the National Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negotiations on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and work to end racial segregation and provide aid to impoverished communities.

Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives.

Digital exhibit by Tamara Martin and Carlos Beltrán, with assistance from Lisa C. Prince (2018)

Imaging by Thaddeus McCurry and Brian Guido (2017-2018)

Editing by Bill Mabie, Nancy Lenoil, and Archives staff

California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Email: ArchivesWeb@sos.ca.gov
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Credits: All media
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