RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fifty years ago today, Robert Kennedy was shot in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the Democratic presidential primary in California.
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ROBERT KENNEDY: I think that we can end the divisions within the United States.
MARTIN: By the time he died, Kennedy had moved from being an anti-communist supporter of the Vietnam War to an anti-war champion of the rights of the country's black and brown people. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team has the story of Kennedy's evolution on race.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In the last year of John Kennedy's term as president, his brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy hosted a meeting in New York with several black celebrities who were active in the civil rights movement. His friend Harry Belafonte was there; so were writer James Baldwin, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and singer Lena Horne. But, says writer Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy and the glamorous creatives were at cross-purposes.
LARRY TYE: They came there, they thought, to tell Bobby what the situation was in American civil rights and what he ought to be doing. Bobby saw the meeting, instead, as his explaining all the things he and his brother had been trying to do. And he thought that he should get a pat on the back. And people thought he should get a kick in the butt.
BATES: Tye, author of "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon," says the group told Kennedy he was moving way too slowly. Stung, Kennedy wrapped up the meeting and fumed for the next couple of days. Then, says Larry Tye, Robert Kennedy did what he always did. He started out with a narrow view.
TYE: And he ended up not long after being able to put himself in the shoes of the people that he was supposedly facing off against and deciding that they were right and, more importantly, that he was going to try to do something about that.
BATES: For a rich kid from Boston who'd had virtually no exposure to the black struggle, that was pretty surprising. In his book, "The Promise And The Dream," David Margolick describes the cautious relationship between Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Margolick says King was a controversial figure for much of white America, but he also had the power of turning out the black vote - a critical demographic.
DAVID MARGOLICK: The Kennedys were politicians, and they had to be careful with Martin Luther King. They had to cultivate him, but they also had to keep their distance from him.
BATES: Robert Kennedy wanted to know more about black America beyond just King, so while he was attorney general and later as a senator from New York, Kennedy made several fact-finding excursions to better understand race and poverty. Sometimes he took one of his older children with him. Robert Kennedy Jr. remembers one visit to Harlem.
ROBERT KENNEDY JR.: At one point, a Puerto Rican mother in an apartment that we visited kept cats in the apartment to keep rats from getting into the crib to - that would bite her baby.
BATES: His son Robert says Kennedy also visited the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia because he wanted Americans to know hunger was not just a problem for people in developing nations.
KENNEDY JR.: There were people mainly, you know, in the Senate and the Congress who said starvation does not exist in America.
BATES: Robert Kennedy offered eyewitness accounts that showed the fallacy of that assumption. During the late '60s, California farmworkers, most of them Mexican-American, were struggling to bring attention to their abysmal working conditions. Lifelong labor activist Dolores Huerta says Robert Kennedy made several visits to the striking farm workers she and Cesar Chavez were organizing in Delano, Calif.
DOLORES HUERTA: And when the senator came to Delano, it definitely put us on the national scene.
BATES: And, says Huerta, that support created an affection for Kennedy that has lasted for generations.
HUERTA: When you go to any Latino's family home, you'll often see a tapestry on the wall, and there's Dr. King and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
BATES: This week, there will be several events to celebrate Robert Kennedy's life and work. Many of those will be in black and brown communities throughout the country. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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