Running with RFK, Rafer Johnson looks back on the 1968 campaign
When Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson signed on with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s insurgent 1968 presidential campaign, the commitment came with a price.
“I had just gotten the best job I could imagine in my life — as a sports commentator on KNBC in Los Angeles,” said Johnson. He knew that traveling around California with the candidate would cost him airtime, and maybe even the plum assignment itself.
But the decathlete, having pledged to support the senator years before, knew he couldn’t back down. Johnson would remain by Kennedy’s side throughout the whirlwind Golden State campaign, right up to the end in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Forty years to the day after the launch of Kennedy’s candidacy, Johnson joined other veterans of the 1968 contest to reflect on the passions, intrigue, and politics that engulfed the Kennedy camp — and the nation — during the 11-week campaign that started in the Senate Caucus Room and ended with the senator’s assassination on the night he won the California primary.
Johnson, now 72, still looks like the sculpted athlete who set world records en route to victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics — tall and graceful, wide in the shoulders and slender at the waist. Sitting on a panel at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library last Sunday, he recalled key moments of hope and drama in a year filled with stunning developments and tragic passages in the nation’s history.
With America still reeling over the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban riots that followed in its wake, Kennedy ignored the advice of a number of aides and accepted an invitation to attend an Oakland, Calif., meeting organized by the Black Panther Party.
“They were very tough on the senator,” said Johnson. “And, as usual, he said the same thing to that audience that he said to any other.”
Kennedy’s message that respect for the law had to prevail even in the face of anger and frustration didn’t sit well with the militants. According to journalist and former Kennedy advisor John Seigenthaler, also on the panel, “it was a rough, gut-cutting meeting in which a handful of people stood up and blistered white society and him as a symbol of white society.”
Future California Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, then an assemblyman presiding over the meeting, got shouted down as a “technicolor nigger” when he tried to calm down the rhetoric.
Johnson himself got called an Uncle Tom when he stood to apologize for the outbursts.
According to a description of the meeting in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” Kennedy was asked what he really thought of black people.
“He said he liked some, and some he did not like; also he liked some white people and some he did not like,” Schlesinger wrote.
The answer prompted an angry response from a local figure known as Black Jesus: “‘I don’t want to hear none of your [expletive],’ he shouted at Kennedy. ‘What the goddamned hell are you going to do, boy? You bastards haven’t did nothing for us. We wants to know, what are you going to do for us?’”
“It got very heated,” said Johnson, “and at the end they were quizzing me about why I would serve a white man and I told them that it was because Robert Kennedy would serve them to the very best of his ability.”
With Johnson surrounded by questioners, Kennedy left the church to drive back to San Francisco. “They were halfway over the bridge before they realized I was left behind,” said Johnson.
According to Seigenthaler, “Robert turned around and asked Rafer a question, but he wasn’t there to answer. ‘Rafer? Rafer?’ he said. When we got back, Rafer was out in front of the church, sitting on the steps talking with a group of children. It was very moving.”
Kennedy brushed off apologies about the meeting.
“‘I’m glad I went … They need to know somebody who’ll listen,” he said. “After all the abuse the blacks have taken through the centuries, whites are just going to have to let them get some these feelings out if we are all really ever going to settle down to a decent relationship.’”
The next morning, at a rally in West Oakland, Black Jesus was circulating in the crowd and telling the rally participants to treat Kennedy with respect. Johnson watched amazed at the end of the rally when some of the Black Panthers who had shouted Kennedy down the night before “were walking beside his car to protect him because of all the people reaching up and grabbing him and not letting go.”
Kennedy’s transformative impact, said Johnson, moved Americans across the racial and economic divide.
Kennedy exposed the miseries of poor whites living in the hollows of Appalachia. He visited Indian reservations to show the nation the deplorable conditions of sovereign peoples reduced to government handouts. He marched with striking farm workers and lectured sheriffs on the Bill of Rights after Chicano protesters were subject to preemptive arrests. After returning from a 1966 trip to South Africa, he described in a Look magazine essay flying over Robben Island — the prison that held Nelson Mandela — and thinking, “Suppose God Is Black?”
On June 5, 1968, the night of the California primary, Rafer Johnson walked a few paces behind Kennedy as he exited the Ambassador Hotel Ballroom and cut through the kitchen. After shots rang out, he and professional football player Roosevelt Grier wrestled Sirhan B. Sirhan to the floor.
“When I looked at all the candidates, I thought Robert Kennedy was the best athlete in the bunch,” said Johnson. “He wanted to be the best that he could be. He had an interest in wanting all of us to be the best that we could be, no matter where we came from.”
That message resonated with Johnson, whose family fled segregation and poverty in Depression-era Texas to live in a railroad boxcar near a cannery in central California while scraping together money for a home.
A stellar athlete at Kingsburg High School, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder declined a football scholarship to focus on track at UCLA, where, as a freshman competing in only his fourth decathlon, he won the 1955 Pan-American Games in Mexico City.
After his Olympic triumph in Rome, Johnson toured the country as an inspirational speaker, landed parts in movies and began a career in broadcasting. Following the Kennedy campaign, he launched the California branch of the Special Olympics and was chosen to light the Olympic flame at the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
Asked about competing claims for the Kennedy mantle by supporters of Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Johnson smiled, put a hand to his gold silk tie, and deflected the question.
“We’re here today to talk about Robert Kennedy,” he said softly.