On June 6, 1968—fifty years ago today—Robert Francis Kennedy died nearly twenty-six hours after being fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Seven years earlier—on January 5, 1961—Hugh Morton photographed Kennedy during a visit to Raleigh, North Carolina.
On that day, Kennedy sat on the platform in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium watching the inauguration of North Carolina’s sixty-fifth governor, Terry Sanford. Fifteen days later, Kennedy’s brother John would be sworn in as the country’s thirty-fifth president.
Hugh Morton also attended Sanford’s swearing-in ceremony. Morton had served as Publicity Director for the election campaign of outgoing governor Luther H. Hodges in 1956. During Hodges’ administration, Morton served as the chair of the State Advertising Committee and as a member of the State Board of Conservation and Development. His credentials provided Morton access to a likely restricted area for the event.
During the inauguration ceremony and Sanford’s ensuing address, Morton photographed with a 120 format roll film camera. He worked predominately from a distance, positioned high up on stage left. He mostly photographed the audience and other officials taking their oaths of office, and Sanford from behind while centered amid the crowd. There are ten negatives extent from the event. In Morton’s negatives, you can see another photographer on the dais in front of the podium during their oaths. Unbeknownst to Morton, his focus for those negatives was off badly. On the very last frame of that roll of film (frame 12), he captured the above close up of Robert F. Kennedy with his wife Ethel. They were seated on right side of the stage, suggesting Morton made the cross-stage trip specifically to make that photograph.
Outside, Morton switched to 35mm film. There are forty-seven surviving 35mm negatives from that day. Two depict Robert Kennedy, likely after the swearing-in ceremony but before Hodges and Sanford made their way into an awaiting convertible. One of the two those two negatives is shown below. Morton also made a 120 format color negative of the two governors seated inside the convertible (not scanned, but published in the book Making A Difference in North Carolina) that is also extant.
Why was Robert Kennedy attending the inauguration of a North Carolina governor? A four-part story in A View to Hugh from 2011 titled “A Spark of Greatness” recounts John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in North Carolina during the 1960 election, drawn mostly from John Drescher’s book Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of Segregation and Reshaped the South. A Spark of Greatness—Part 3 sets the stage for RFK’s return to NC for Sanford’s inauguration. That account, however, is really only part of the story. In terms of the presidential election, Robert Kennedy stated that “North Carolina was the most pleasant state to win for me.” But he played a minor controversial role in Sanford’s election, too.
Sanford met with Robert Kennedy during his gubernatorial primary campaign—reluctantly, but he did so as a favor to Louis Harris, his pollster and a fellow UNC alumnus. (Sanford received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941, Harris received his BA in 1942, and Hugh Morton was a member of the class of 1943.) Sanford had begun building a relationship with the Kennedys during the election season, but had not yet decided if he would endorse John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson. Their meeting was to be private. It took place during the first part of June in Raleigh at the College Inn. Sanford was impressed with Robert Kennedy’s organizational skills. Sanford left the meeting without making a commitment, but he was now convinced John Kennedy would defeat Johnson.
During a press conference on June 13, a UPI reporter asked Sanford if he had met with Kennedy. Sanford said he had not. Sanford thought the reporter asked about John Kennedy but realized he had meant to say Robert. Within a week newspapers carried stories about the meeting between Sanford and Robert Kennedy. Sanford later regretted that he did not give a more forthright answer, one that acknowledged that he had not met with JFK but had met with RFK. The political news was soon filled with stories that questioned, among various other scenarios, if Sanford had something to hide—particularly a promise to endorse Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention.
In his book Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions, Howard Covington recounts how Sanford made his way into the White House prior to the funeral service for John F. Kennedy. Sanford attempted to gain access to the White House, but police physically thwarted his attempt despite his being a governor. He finally convinced the police to escort him inside as if he was under arrest. Once inside, Sanford spoke briefly to Robert Kennedy, then left.
Three months before the JFK assassination, Robert Kennedy had written a letter to Sanford, according to Covington, “to commend him on his management of difficult times.” Kennedy wrote, “You have always shown leadership in this effort, which could well be followed by many chief executives in the north as well as in your part of the nation.” Kennedy had written a post script at the bottom of his letter: “I hope I am not causing you too much trouble down there. Just deny you ever met me. That is the only advice I can think to give you. Bob.” In a note back to Robert Kennedy, Terry Sanford wrote: “I haven’t denied you yet.”