Tales from the Trail

Robert Kennedy hailed on 50th anniversary of becoming Attorney General

January 21, 2011

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(Updates with remarks by Kennedy’s daughter on gun control.)

Robert F. Kennedy, who made history as attorney general in the 1960s, was remembered as one of the Justice Department’s most effective leaders who fought for civil rights and created an enduring and inspiring legacy.

Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the swearing-in of Kennedy, who was chosen to be the nation’s 64th attorney general by his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy’s widow Ethel and other Kennedy family members were joined by civil rights leaders and current and former department officials in the building’s Great Hall to pay tribute to the late attorney general.

With a portrait of Kennedy and his old office chair on display, the current Attorney General Eric Holder told a packed audience of several hundred that Kennedy had inspired him to join the department’s Criminal Division as a young lawyer in 1976.RFK 29 - Rowe

Holder noted Kennedy’s historic efforts to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963, calling it a defining “act of courage.”

One of those students became Holder’s sister-in-law and she later worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, Holder said, adding that she had been inspired by the courage shown by the department under Kennedy’s leadership.

“Attorney General Kennedy championed the cause of the least among us and made our nation more just, more fair, and more humane. He was not afraid to dream a better world and to act to create it,” Holder said.

“Let us continue this fight for a world free from injustice,’ he said.

RFK 14Kennedy served as attorney general until Sept. 3, 1964, when he resigned to run for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, a race he won. He was assassinated in 1968 in Los Angeles while running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The ceremony marked the latest tribute for Kennedy involving his his tenure as probably the most influential attorney general in history. In 2001 under Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft, the main Justice Department building was renamed after Kennedy.

The Justice Department also posted online all of Kennedy’s speeches as attorney general, found here.

Other speakers included Congressman John Lewis, a key civil rights leader; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to enter the University of Georgia; and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kennedy’s daughter and a former Maryland lieutenant governor.

Townsend, whose father was the victim of an assassin’s bullet in 1968, slammed the USA/expiration of the assault weapons ban in the wake of the shooting spree in Arizona where a 22-year-old man killed  six people, including a federal judge, and wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

“I believe that this department and this country have got to do a better job on gun regulation and on gun control and making our citizens safe,” Townsend said. “We make it easy for men of all shades and sanity to acquire weapons, and violence breeds violence.”

- Photos of Kennedy in his office and outside the U.S. Capitol courtesy of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.  Photo of Kennedy with civil rights leaders and Vice President Lyndon Johnson courtesy Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Library.  Photos via Justice Department.

- Photo of Holder, Ethel Kennedy and Townsend via Reuters/Mike Theiler.

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