LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paul Schrade had an up-close view of the Kennedy dynasty in the 1960s.
The union leader got involved in politics during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, advised Robert F. Kennedy during his own White House run eight years later and introduced the younger Kennedy to California farmworker union leaders who were instrumental in making poverty and labor pillars of his candidacy.
Then, on the early morning of June 5, 1968, an assassin shot Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. A bullet also struck Schrade in the head. He survived the attack and is now 93-years-old.
Schrade and the four others who were injured in the shooting are often overlooked players in the assassination that killed Kennedy at the age of 42 amid his ascendant presidential campaign.
When Schrade gained consciousness at a nearby hospital, a United Automobile Workers leader came to his bedside and told him the news: Kennedy was dead.
Schrade has relived the moment almost every day of his life. He has dedicated his life to the memory of Kennedy, drawing attention to injustice and forgiving convicted murderer Sirhan Sirhan. Those causes have put him in direct conflict with the Los Angeles Police Department and a certain former real estate developer, Donald Trump.
“And I don’t care,” Schrade said.
A native of Saratoga Springs, New York, Schrade dropped out of Yale and took a job at an aerospace plant before rising up the ranks of the United Automobile Workers union. He met Robert F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign and they struck up a friendship that remained as he became attorney general and a U.S. senator in New York.
Schrade convinced him to visit Delano, California, where poor Latino and Filipino farmworkers were involved in a strike with growers. Kennedy met United Farm Worker leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta during the visit.
“I saw Kennedy and Chavez meet and interact,” Schrade said. “I knew Kennedy would identify with what (the farm workers) were going through.”
When Kennedy announced he would run for president, Schrade agreed to join his team and advise him on labor issues. The night of the California primary, Schrade almost didn’t go to the Ambassador Hotel until he heard a radio report that Kennedy was trailing. But the senator would win California on the strength of the Mexican-American and black vote.
During Kennedy’s victory speech after the California and South Dakota primary wins, Schrade was on the stage a few feet behind him. As Schrade and Kennedy made their way through the hotel kitchen, they were were shot.
“I felt like I was electrocuted,” Schrade said.
Schrade underwent surgery and survived despite fragments of bullets remaining in his skull. But he fell into deep depression and lost his re-election for his union office. He returned to a factory job where he tried to stay out of politics.
To this day, Schrade believes Los Angeles police botched the case and failed to investigate possible leads about a second gunman. At Schrade’s Los Angeles home, his office and living room are stacked with documents arguing that Sirhan Sirhan wasn’t the lone shooter. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently announced he believed the case into his father’s death needed to be reopened.
Los Angeles police and prosecutors consider the case closed.
Schrade didn’t stay out of the spotlight for too long. In 2010, a million complex of public schools for thousands of students opened on the site of the Ambassador Hotel after a two-decade fight that Schrade had a role in waging. The battle involved costly legal feuds with conservationists who wanted to save the historic hotel from razing, and with Trump, who wanted to build the world’s tallest skyscraper on the site.
The schools today serve predominantly Latino and black students. A “Paul Schrade Library” rests on the spot where the ballroom once stood. The education complex is called Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.
Schrade said many of the problems Kennedy sought to address are still with the country today, including poverty and racial divisions.
“A lot of these issues are still with us so we have to look at what Bobby Kennedy tried to do in 1968,” Schrade said. “The fight is not over.”
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras