CLBR #304: RFK Remembered With Peter Edelman

RFK Remembered With Peter Edelman

CLBR is thrilled to have to Peter Edelman, my law professor and aide to Bobby Kennedy, to talk about the 50th anniversary of his presidential campaign and assassination and what it means today.


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Edelman and RFK

After serving as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Goldberg, Edelman joined the Justice Department under Attorney General Kennedy in 1963.  He worked under Assistant Attorney General (Civil Division) John Douglas.  Douglas had been responsible for coordinating logistical and security considerations for the 1963 March on Washington.

Senator Kennedy

Edelman worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Senate campaign and joined the Senate staff after the election.

  • “Why am I dragging myself all the way out to California?” 

Edelman convinced Senator Kennedy to travel to Delano, California for a 1966 Senate subcommittee hearing on the United Farm Workers strike led by Cesar Chavez.  It would become the beginning of an important friendship between the two leaders.

  • Mississippi Learning

During a March 1967 Senate hearing, Marion Wright, a 27-year-old attorney for the NAACP, urged Kennedy to come to the Mississippi to see the poverty that existed there.  The next month, Edelman joined Kennedy on that trip which was eye opening for the Senator and an important moment in his political evolution.

It was also transformative for Edelman who would marry Wright in July 1968. They were only the third inter-racial couple married in Virginia following the Supreme Court’s Loving decision.

  • Chavez Ends His Hunger Strike

In March 1968, Edelman joined Kennedy as he returned to Delano to join Chavez as he ended his hunger strike.  During the plane ride, Kennedy told Edelman, who had urged the Senator to run for President, that he was going to run.

85 Days: The RFK Presidential Campaign

Edelman joined the campaign and was part of its inner circle.  Edelman recalls that in the campaign Kennedy

told people everywhere… that we had to end the war in Vietnam, end the near starvation he’d seen in rural black Mississippi, and more broadly end the poverty that should not exist in America. He talked about things that were not their priority, but they believed in his sincerity and respected his courage.

He was in New York on June 5, 1968, preparing for the final primary battle before the convention.  He awoke to the news that Kennedy had been shot at the Ambassador Hotel that night.   He helped write Ted Kennedy’s eulogy at the funeral mass and rode the funeral train back to Washington.  He recalls of the train ride

There were people of every race every background who maybe just out of respect to wave goodbye. But it was much more than that.  You have a feeling in a personal way of immense infinite loss. . . . As we went clickety clack down the tracks, mile by mile, seeing people in the thousandstold us what an enormous loss that was and also what a broad support there was for him.

Much of the Ambassador Hotel was razed and is now the site of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.  Los Angeles Mayor rejected a proposal by Donald Trump to build a 125-story office tower (the tallest in the U.S.) on the site.


Edelman continued his connection with the Kennedys, serving as deputy director for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and issues director for Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign.

Over the years, Edelman has been a forceful defender of Kennedy’s legacy.  He wrote Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope which was published in 2001.   In 2006, I had the honor of working with him in writing What Would Bobby Do? for Huffington Post. 

Edelman is featured prominently in the Netflix documentary, “Bobby Kennedy for President“.

In April this year, he published “Robert F. Kennedy: Teachings for Today” in The American Prospect that concludes:

People ask me whether there is a Robert Kennedy of today or one who might emerge, with that special set of leadership, values, and the ability to bridge the chasms of today. I don’t know, but I do know this: We can’t wait for a savior. We have to get to work. It is up to us.

edelmanPeter Edelman


Peter Edelman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches constitutional law and poverty law and is faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. On the faculty since 1982, he has also served in all three branches of government. During President Clinton’s first term he was Counselor to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and then Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Professor Edelman has been Associate Dean of the Law Center, Director of the New York State Division for Youth, and Vice President of the University of Massachusetts. He was a Legislative Assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and was Issues Director for Senator Edward Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in 1980. Earlier, he was a Law Clerk to Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg and before that to Judge Henry J. Friendly on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as Special Assistant to Assistant Attorney General John Douglas.

Professor Edelman’s most recent book, So Rich So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, was published by The New Press in May 2012. He previously wrote Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope, which was published by Houghton-Mifflin in January 2001. He also co-authored Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men, which was published by the Urban Institute in 2006, and is the author of many articles on poverty, constitutional law, and issues about children and youth. His article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” received the Harry Chapin Media Award.

Peter Edelman has chaired and been a board member of many organizations and foundations. He is currently chair of the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission and the National Center for Youth Law, and formerly board chair of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Public Welfare Foundation, board president emeritus of the New Israel Fund, and a board member of the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and a half dozen other nonprofit organizations.

He has been a United States-Japan Leadership Program Fellow, was the J. Skelly Wright Memorial Fellow at Yale Law School, and has received numerous honors and awards for his work. He grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He is married to Marian Wright-Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.  His youngest son Ezra, is the Academy Award Winning Director of O.J.: Made in America.

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