On April 4, 1968, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy took to the stage in Indianapolis, Indiana to tell the mostly Black crowd that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country,” Kennedy said that evening. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Two months later, Kennedy was killed — shot to death in Los Angeles, moments after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary.
While Kennedy has been lionized as the rare politician who could bring together working-class whites, African-Americans, and Latinx voters, his transformation from being openly suspicious of those in the civil rights movements to being one of its biggest supporters is one of the most interesting components of filmmaker Dawn Porter’s last project, Bobby Kennedy For President.
In the four-part Netflix documentary series, Porter uses archival footage and interviews with people like Harry Belafonte, activist Dolores Huerta, and Congressman John Lewis to chronicle Kennedy’s rise through the ranks to become one of the most beloved figures in American history, particularly for scores of Black people.
“He’s a really fascinating historical figure,” Porter tells ESSENCE. “I’ve always been interested in politics. Career-wise, a lot of my films deal with social justice, and I felt like this one dealt with social justice from a different perspective.”
According to Porter — who has covered topics like abortion, the criminal justice system, and fatherhood in her work — Kennedy’s influence on many prominent African-Americans, like former Attorney General Eric Holder, prompted her to delve deeper into his life.
“In our initial research into the story, when I saw what a difference civil rights leaders made in his life, it meant that made a difference in all of our lives and I wanted to add in their voices to this history,” she says. “He’s a very compelling figure and it was just a rich opportunity to dig into the archives as a filmmaker, but to also tell the story through a different lens.”
While many look to Kennedy’s life and ability to bring people together as an example of the type of coalition they’d like to build in the future, Porter says his life can teach us a valuable lesson right now about extending people grace and room to grow.
“We’re awfully quick these days to label people and keep them in a box and I think that that doesn’t serve any of us well,” Porter explains. “All of us are complicated, but if we’re smart and mature we all evolve. I think what you see with Bobby Kennedy is his evolution, but you have to understand the beginning to deeply appreciate the end.”
Under his leadership at the Justice Department, Kennedy authorized the surveillance of African-American leaders like Dr. King, who was considered a threat to the nation. However, as he forged relationships with people in the movement like Belafonte, Huerta, and writer James Baldwin, his perspectives began to shift. Soon, Kennedy would send federal marshals to Mississippi to protect the Freedom Riders, and later, would commit himself to healing America’s racial divisions. Kennedy’s shift in his commitment to racial justice made Porter even more enthralled by his life.
“I appreciated the end so much when I understood that history,” she says. “The fact that the man who authorized the wiretap of Martin Luther King, Jr. would then break Cesar Chavez‘s fast, would march with Dolores Huerta during the grape strikes and would announce Martin Luther King’s death to a largely Black audience in Indianapolis. Those are seminal moments in our history, but I think they’re made even richer and deeper and more meaningful because that’s not where he began.”
Many wonder what America would have looked like had Kennedy survived and gone on to the White House. “Had Kennedy lived we wouldn’t have had Nixon, Watergate, Bush, or Trump,” Huerta said in a recent interview. “Kennedy was a different kind of individual. He believed in bringing people together. He was not divisive, he was a uniter.”
For Porter, the nation’s current political climate makes it the perfect time to reflect on Kennedy’s life. “Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr. were always really, really important in marginalized communities, in the African-American community,” she told PBS. “And I thought what a great time to explore that legacy, at a time when politics feels so dark and when so many people… are so impacted by the political discourse of today.”
Now that Porter has tackled Kennedy’s complex life in Bobby Kennedy For President, she’s hoping to reclaim a little of her time and work on a project about yet another impactful politician, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. As she explores her next potential subject, Porter says she just appreciates the opportunity to make films that matter, and support other Black folks in the business, too.
“I’m just grateful the offers are coming and the projects are coming and I’m also interested in sharing that love,” she tells ESSENCE. “As Ava DuVernay always says, ‘It’s no fun being the only.”’ It’s important that there are many of us with many visions because there’s not one way to be Black.”