GREENVILLE — Shortly after midnight June 5, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was declared the winner of California’s Democratic Primary, a victory which many thought placed him in prime position to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
However, a few moments after he finished speaking to the audience assembled at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot by an assassin, and he died the following day.
Fifty years later, the “what if” and “what could have been” questions continue to be pondered by Bill White of Dayton, a longtime collector of Kennedy memorabilia.
In honor of the late senator and would-be presidential contender, White’s collection of RFK collectibles is being displayed at the Garst Museum in Greenville.
“Everywhere the senator went — Indiana, a big primary state he won — crowds were so excited about his candidacy, because he was a multi-issue candidate,” White said. “Sen. Eugene McCarthy, was mainly an anti-war candidate. You went to a Bobby Kennedy rally, he was talking about the poor people, how they could do better, education and gun control, and on and on. He was gathering excitement.”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey would eventually beat McCarthy for his party’s nomination but would lose to Republican Richard Nixon in a closely contested race that November.
White asserts Kennedy’s untimely death at the age of 42 likely changed the course of American history.
“It certainly would have been an interesting summertime, fall, if this had not happened,” White said. “I believe [Kennedy] had a very good chance, because he was connected to the people, because of the crowds, and he had the ‘Kennedy mystique.’ He was going to pick up the mantle, finish what his brother [President John F. Kennedy] started.”
“It boggles the mind. What would have happened? What would have happened?” he said.
White’s collection contains magazines, newspapers, buttons, busts, flags, photos and includes a 45-rpm record featuring Andy Williams performing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” at Kennedy’s funeral.
Perhaps one of White’s most prized pieces of Kennedy memorabilia is a signed letter from Sen. Ted Kennedy, dated March 7, 1969, in response to a letter White had written to him in condolence. It reads: “Dear Mr. White: I want you to know how much I appreciated receiving your letter. That you should take the time to share with me your thoughts and your kind words of support and encouragement means a great deal to me. My thanks again for your thoughtfulness, and with my kind regards. Sincerely, Edward M. Kennedy.”
White grew up in Greenville, and his interest in politics and history — and especially the Kennedys — was sparked by his mother’s involvement in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960.
“Some things you latch onto and you never give up,” he said. “My interest in government, my interest in politics, my collections, sharing them with people, showing that these people actually existed. It’s not just a picture on the evening news.”
Asked what attracts him to the memory of Robert Kennedy, White said, “His message.”
“His message of inclusion, his message of hope, and of course the tie-in with his brother. One was cut short, and here comes a brother, and he was so close, so we thought it was the best of what the needs were in 1968,” he said. “To have fresh ideas, a much younger person in there, was appealing to all of us in our family.”
White hopes those viewing the artifacts will absorb the impact the late senator had on his generation.
“I want them to linger, I want them to think, I want them to see how this ties together. That this person put himself out here for the benefit of all of us,” he said.
The Robert F. Kennedy exhibit will be on display at the Garst Museum though Aug. 3.