Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child in the closely knit and competitive family of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. "I was the seventh of nine children," he later recalled, "and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive."
He attended Milton Academy and, after wartime service in the Navy, received his degree in government from Harvard University in 1948. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School three years later. Perhaps more important for his education was the Kennedy family dinner table, where his parents involved their children in discussions of history and current affairs. "I can hardly remember a mealtime," Robert Kennedy said, "when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world."
In 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel of Greenwich, Connecticut, daughter of Ann Brannack Skakel and George Skakel, founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation. Robert and Ethel Kennedy later had eleven children. In 1952, he made his political debut as manager of his older brother John's successful campaign for the US Senate from Massachusetts.
The following year, he served briefly on the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Disturbed by McCarthy's controversial tactics, Kennedy resigned from the staff after six months. He later returned to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority, in which capacity he wrote a report condemning McCarthy's investigation of alleged Communists in the Army. His later work as Chief Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption in trade unions won him national recognition for exposing Teamsters' Union leaders Jimmy Hoffa and David Beck.
In 1960, he was the tireless and effective manager of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. After the election, he was appointed Attorney General in President Kennedy's cabinet. While Attorney General, he won respect for his diligent, effective and nonpartisan administration of the Department of Justice.
Attorney General Kennedy launched a successful drive against organized crime, and convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800% during his tenure. He also became increasingly committed to helping African Americans win the right to vote, attend integrated schools and use public accommodations. He demonstrated his commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech (Video) at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."
In September 1962, Attorney General Kennedy sent US Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a federal court order admitting the first African American student—James Meredith—to the University of Mississippi. The riot that had followed Meredith's registration at "Ole Miss" had left two dead and hundreds injured. Robert Kennedy believed that voting was the key to achieving racial justice and collaborated with President Kennedy in proposing the most far-reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed eight months after President Kennedy's death.
Robert Kennedy was not only President Kennedy's Attorney General; he was also his closest advisor and confidant. As a result of this unique relationship, the Attorney General played a key role in several critical foreign policy decisions. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, he helped develop the Kennedy administration's strategy to blockade Cuba instead of taking military action that could have led to nuclear war. He then negotiated with the Soviet Union on removal of the weapons.
Soon after President Kennedy's death, Robert Kennedy resigned as Attorney General and, in 1964, ran successfully for the United States Senate from New York. His opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, labeled Kennedy a "carpetbagger" during the closely contested campaign. Kennedy responded to the attacks with humor. "I have [had] really two choices over the period of the last ten months," he said (Video) at Columbia University. "I could have stayed in—I could have retired. [Laughter.] And I—my father has done very well, and I could have lived off him. [Laughter and applause.] . . . I tell you frankly I don't need this title because I [could] be called General, I understand, for the rest of my life. [Laughter and applause.] And I don't need the money and I don't need the office space [Laughter]. . . . Frank as it is—and maybe it's difficult to believe in the state of New York—I'd like to just be a good United States Senator. I'd like to serve." Kennedy waged an effective statewide campaign and, aided by President Lyndon Johnson's landslide, won the November election by 719,000 votes.
As New York's Senator, he initiated several projects in the state, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn. Since 1967, the program has been a model for communities across the nation.
These programs were part of a larger effort to address the needs of the dispossessed and powerless in America - the poor, the young, racial minorities and Native Americans. He sought to bring the facts about poverty to the conscience of the American people, journeying into urban ghettos, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and migrant workers' camps. "There are children in the Mississippi Delta," he said, "whose bellies are swollen with hunger... Many of them cannot go to school because they have no clothes or shoes. These conditions are not confined to rural Mississippi. They exist in dark tenements in Washington, DC, within sight of the Capitol, in Harlem, in South Side Chicago, in Watts. There are children in each of these areas who have never been to school, never seen a doctor or a dentist. There are children who have never heard conversation in their homes, never read or even seen a book."