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Remembering RFK's Buffalo connections, 50 years after his death

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Archives and Special Collections Department, E.H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State
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Fifty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy succumbed to the gunshot wounds he suffered one day before, wounds inflicted by an assassin who shot him just moments after Kennedy finished a victory speech at the Democratic Presidential Primary in California. The tragedy shook countless Americans including many in Buffalo, who recalled their memories of RFK, including his visit to Buffalo four years prior as a candidate for US Senate.

Kennedy, upon completing his victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, turned away from the podium and passed through a crowd of supporters behind him. Shortly after, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan - a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship - shot him three times.

The assassination came nearly five years after the shooting death of Robert Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, in a Dallas motorcade. Unlike John, who died just a short time after his shooting, Robert clinged to life for another 25 hours before passing away. 

During that span, numerous vigils were held nationwide. In Buffalo, schoolchildren knelt in prayer in St. Brigid's Church. Captured in prayer with her St. Brigid classmates in a 1968 edition of the Courier Express was Lisa Banks, now Lisa Banks Carson. 

"I remember the sadness of it," she said in a phone interview with WBFO. "The environment was very sad. The adults at the time, it was very sad at the time."

On that fateful night in Los Angeles, a young man from Buffalo was visiting friends and taking in a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game. That man was Len Lenihan, who would become an influential figure to Erie County's Democrats years later.

"It was days I'd never forget. In many respects, it was a nightmare," said Lenihan. "It was like reliving what happened five years earlier and, for those of us who were emotionally involved and politically involved, it was a crushing time."

Lenihan, who would later become an Erie County Legislator, Democratic Committee Chairman and Elections Commissioner, was enamored with the Kennedy family since attending John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign visit to Buffalo in 1960. Four years later, at the age of 16, he was among thousands who lined up along Genesee Street as Robert Kennedy came to town to seek votes in his run for US Senate.

"I was going into my junior year in high school at that point," he recalled. "I remember the excitement and the hope that Robert Kennedy was going to carry on the ideals of his brother John F. Kennedy."

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Credit Courier-Express Collection, Archives and Special Collections Dept., E.H.Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State
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Students of St. Brigid School in Buffalo pray for Robert Kennedy in June 1968, hours after he was shot in California. Kennedy would die of his gunshot wounds hours later. At lower left is Lisa Banks, now Lisa Banks Carson, who recalled a "sad environment" after the shooting.

Even closer to the Kennedys was Joseph Crangle, who became the Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman in 1965. By 1968, he was was assisting Senator Robert Kennedy's presidential run by organizing his Michigan campaign. He was there to help the Kennedy family at his funeral and burial. 

"The day of the funeral, Joe was an honorary pall bearer at St. Patrick's Cathedral," Lenihan recalled. "Then he and his wife Rita were on the procession on the train that went from New York City, through New Jersey and Delaware, all the way to Washington, DC and to Arlington Cemetery."

Due to health reasons, WBFO was unable to interview Crangle for this story. However, Crangle's memories of that ride to Arlington National Cemetery were published in the June 10, 1968 edition of the Buffalo Evening News. 

One of the passages read: "In North Philadelphia and in Baltimore the spontaneous singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic was heard in the train. Many people carried signs expressing their feelings. One in Baltimore said, 'Goodnight, sweet Prince.' Another, 'May he rest in peace.' Others, simply, 'Goodbye Bobby.'"

Lisa Banks Carson said she was too young to remember Bobby Kennedy as a person and candidate but recalled that the adults around her were fond of the presidential hopeful.

"I know my family was very happy about it," she said. "The people that were surrounding around me, they were happy when he was running."

Sirhan is serving a life sentence. In addition to killing Robert Kennedy, he shot and wounded five others on June 5, 1968. He was reportedly motivated to shoot Kennedy because of the politician's support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He has been denied parole 15 times. His next scheduled parole hearing is in 2021.

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