50 Years After His Death, Making RFK More Than A Ghost And A Mural Multi-generations debate and reminisce about the legacy left by the slain Democratic senator from New York. He championed for better treatment of the poor and people of color.
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50 Years After His Death, Making RFK More Than A Ghost And A Mural

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50 Years After His Death, Making RFK More Than A Ghost And A Mural

50 Years After His Death, Making RFK More Than A Ghost And A Mural

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All this year, NPR is looking at the pivotal events of 1968. Fifty years ago today in the early hours of June 5, Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just won the California primary, a key win in his quest for the White House. But soon after, the Democratic contender for the nomination was gunned down in a kitchen hallway as he walked through the kitchen of LA's Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy died the next day.

Today, 50 years on, Americans young and old are still wrestling with RFK's legacy and working to breathe new life into his social justice ethos. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Where the Ambassador Hotel once stood in LA's Koreatown neighborhood is now home to six public schools. This 20-acre patch of real estate could've easily become just like the high-end condos and office buildings sprouting all around it, but people with vision fought that. In the spirit of RFK, they took on big real estate developers, including one named Donald J. Trump, and took a stand for underserved neighborhoods. The very spot Senator Kennedy lay bleeding, cradled by a teenage busboy named Juan Romero, is now a center for teaching and learning.

SUSAN CANJURA: Part of the library does include the area where Kennedy was shot, the kitchen, and it's now behind the librarian's desk.

WESTERVELT: That's RFK High School of the Arts Principal Susan Canjura. She's in the library of the RFK Community Schools beneath a giant, colorful mural of the late senator breaking bread with labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. The six public schools, Canjura says, have a shared vision to foster social justice to show the some 4,000 students here that RFK is not just a name on the buildings.

CANJURA: We try not to fall into that, right? I think seeing his picture every day on the mural and really thinking about what he means and putting that into our curriculum, too - it's something that I think really lives in this school.

WESTERVELT: An older generation, too, especially those who lived through RFK's death, are also still wrestling with his legacy and relevance today.

MICHAEL SCOTT: Someplace I read one never really knows the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

WESTERVELT: Michael Scott had just turned 15 50 years ago when he heard that the train carrying RFK's body would pass near his small town of North East, Md., near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a hot, humid June afternoon when Scott looked at his mother working in the kitchen.

SCOTT: I remember she had her apron on. She was preparing a meal. And I said, Mom, I'd like to go see the train.

WESTERVELT: For teenage Michael Scott, going to see the funeral train was on one level just something to do on a hot afternoon. But there was more. Scott's father was a local civil rights leader. His parents had great affection for Kennedy, who during his short career worked to unite black, brown and white, a man who the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated stood before a crowd of African-Americans in Indianapolis - some crestfallen, some angry - and called for unity.

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ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

SCOTT: There was something beautiful about him just being truthful, which is lacking today. It's not a fashionable concept to appear vulnerable or to appear authentic.

WESTERVELT: Scott and his mom were among the estimated 1 million Americans of all colors and classes who spontaneously lined stretches of train track from New York to Washington, D.C., in what one writer said marked a long, sad human chain of mourning.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A train carried his coffin to Washington.

PETER EDELMAN: I was kind of in a blur. You know, it's like losing a close member of the family.

WESTERVELT: Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman knew Robert Kennedy and worked as his legislative aide in the Senate from 1964 until the end. He attended the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and rode the funeral train down to Washington.

EDELMAN: As we went down - clickety-clack down the tracks - mile by mile, seeing people in the thousands told us what an enormous loss that was and also what a broad support there was for him.

WESTERVELT: As the train passed, many say they felt like hope and justice had been knocked down in an America already rocked by assassinations, Vietnam and urban uprisings.

Back at the RFK Community Schools, teacher Elizabeth Mora says it's a challenge making RFK and that history relevant and alive for today's teenagers. Mora, who teaches geography and AP government, says that's where President Donald Trump comes in.

ELIZABETH MORA: To help them understand that these are fights that people have been fighting for a very long time.

WESTERVELT: Mora says Trump's policies, especially his crackdown on illegal immigration, are deeply challenging for many of her students, a majority of whom are Latino. Yet it's exactly that kind of challenge for today that Mora loves about teaching here - to make RFK more than a ghost and a mural.

MORA: To kind of help our students find the agency in themselves to continue fighting for what they want in their communities - equity, social justice, health. Turn it into a society that we want.

WESTERVELT: Mora's words resonate with one of RFK's favorite lines, which he used often while campaigning in 1968, from writer George Bernard Shaw. Some men see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not? Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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