This was a shooting that shook the world out of the era fresh-faced optimism that the young president had ushered in. It was a sunny approach against the odds - the United States was as conservative as any nation in the world in those days.
The fact that it took the country nearly 200 years to elect its first Catholic, in the shape of JFK, as president, shows how conservative, conservative can be. Race relations in the US stank, the south was segregated and the country was run by powerful Anglo Saxon elite.
When the National government in South Africa wanted a sound system to prosecute its racist apartheid laws it despatched its civil servants, not to study Nazi Germany, but to the Deep South state of Mississippi where lynching was commonplace and segregation a science. The US state of which human rights campaigners used to joke: “What has four eyes, but can’t see…Mississippi “
In the light of all of this, it is even more bizarre to recall an often overlooked visit to South Africa by Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of JFK. He arrived two years and one day before the man himself also fell to an assassin’s bullet as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on his way to a speech.
Legend has it, that veteran South African activist, Alex Boraine, wanted Dr Martin Luther King to visit South Africa to speak to students in Cape Town and Durban. Dr King declined, saying he had too much to do in his own country, so Boraine approached Kennedy who agreed saying: “What difference can I make?”
The apartheid authorities, saw the visit as an irritation, but took the precaution of revoking visas to 40 US journalists who wanted to follow Kennedy. This was the South Africa that was in the full flush of dingy apartheid: Nelson Mandela and his comrades were carrying out hard labour in a prison quarry on Robben Island; it was an offence to sleep with anyone of a different race.
Despite this oppressive regime, the authorities strangely allowed Kennedy to meet with the head of the African National Congress, Albert Luthuli, who was a banned person. He also made speeches that brought hope to the downtrodden masses including one at the University of Cape Town that was quoted in the senator’s epitaph.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
The words were strong enough to be echoed by President Barack Obama when he visited South Africa nearly half a century later.
It is strange to think that in the present world political climate Bobby Kennedy would have been regarded by his own people as a left wing for his visit and liberal utterings. It is sad that neither the senator nor his brother lived to see the triumph of the ballot box over the boot on April 27 1994.