RFK at BYU in 1968


As bloggers have pointed out in the recent discussions over the prospect of Vice-President Cheney speaking at BYU, Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke at BYU on March 27, 1968.

Here’s the 1968 Dialogue that published a transcript of Kennedy’s speech: “RFK at BYU,” Dialogue, Vol. 3:3 (Autumn, 1968), 163-167.

Here’s a photo and the 1982 reprint of the speech from BYU’s off-campus magazine, Seventh East Press , in “RFK at BYU: The Day the Fieldhouse Rocked.” [note: link has been removed]

Here’s a photo of the Senator signing BYU student autographs. (Thanks, Justin, at #133 on Julie’s “Cheney at BYU” Times and Seasons blog .)

And then, Bergera and Priddis, in Brigham Young University: House of Faith, discuss the RFK visit in chapter 5, “Partisan Politics & the University,” in the “The Development of a Speakers Policy” section. It’s available online at Signature Books. Here’s an excerpt relevant to the RFK visit:

“When television reporter Howard K. Smith, who had also been invited during [BYU Pres.] Wilkinson’s absence, spoke favorably of U.S. president Lyndon Johnson’s New Society, Wilkinson promised that Smith would not be invited again [cite].. “Wilkinson also argued that the joint appearance of nationally syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson would “have serious repercussions with certain members of my Board of Trustees [presumably ETBenson?], who are acquainted with what they consider to be the unethical conduct of these two gentlemen” [cite]. Following the appearance of U.S. vice-president Hubert Humphrey in October 1966, Wilkinson complained that he had been pressured by Democratic General Authorities into allowing the vice-president to speak on campus [cite]. He was particularly annoyed that he had not had enough time to provide an articulate Republican rebuttal. Less than two years later, Wilkinson refused to cancel classes for the campus appearance of presidential candidate and U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (D–Massachusetts). Still, more than 15,000 students packed the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse to hear the charismatic Kennedy quip, “I had a very nice conversation with Dr. Wilkinson, and I promised him that all Democrats would be off the campus by sundown.” The next week, Republican senator Charles H. Percy (Illinois) attracted fewer than 5,000 students. In late 1970, Wilkinson accompanied Senator Barry Goldwater and Utah’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Laurence J. Burton…During the late 1960s, trustees expanded the speakers’ policy to prohibit speakers who were “engaged in…”


  1. Very interesting.

    But wasn’t RFK a senator from NY, not Massachusetts?

  2. This is a wonderful little vignette; the picture is fabulous. All told, it is of course unfortunate.

  3. Sorry to be picky.

    I followed the Signature link and saw it was their mistake.

  4. Am I just supposed to KNOW what prohibited speakers were “engaged in…”?

    Feeling really dumb right now…

  5. J., what’s unfortunate? RFK’s visit? Political visits at BYU? BYU’s response to political visitors?

    It’s noteworthy that, during the period in question, RFK and Republican speakers were present at BYU. It’s also noteworthy that RFK didn’t speak at commencement.

  6. Ann, the full quote from the Signature Books website is:

    “engaged in programs or movements antagonistic to the church or its standards,” which Wilkinson interpreted to preclude “atheists,” “subversives,” “those [having] any link with Russia or who would destroy our country,” and “those who would defame or ridicule our concept of strict morality.”

  7. Thanks, Stirling, for posting the SEP pages on Kennedy’s visit. Several interesting articles there.

  8. J., what’s unfortunate?

    Wilkinson’s response.

  9. Yes, thanks again for posting the pages. I’m the one who was asking if this was available anywhere on line, over in the Times and Seasons thread.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m way too young for the RFK visit (love the photo of the kids around him–rock star indeed!), but I’m just right to remember the venerable Seventh East Press. What a fun paper that was! I wish I had kept my copies; it wouild be cool if the full run were digitized somewhere.

  11. I agree with J. RFK humorously got the better of Wilkinson who, frankly, had asked for ridicule.

    By the way, opposing Cheney’s visit because he is a politician is misguided. Students ought to be able to meet politicians at a university.

    I would agree with Wilkinson, however, that not every politician deserves to be honored. Whether one agrees or disagrees with a particular politician, however, is not sufficient to justify exclusion.

    Imagine how exciting it would be if every presidential candidate would want to come to BYU.

  12. cj douglass says:

    “those [having] any link with Russia or who would destroy our country,”

    You gotta love the rhetoric.

  13. Stirling,

    Thanks for this great post. Wow, what great memories! I saved all my copies, and had a complete set of the 7 EP; but alas I lost them after I left BYU and returned to CA. Interesting how it listed Jim Faulconer as one of the writers.

    Also interesting is the story on page one of the Aug. 24, 1982 issue, where it talks about how a “Mark Hoffman” had been discovering early Church documents, which in this case was the Lucy Mack letter. This is a great piece of history. I hope they do find and digitize the entire collection. There’s some great stuff in there.

  14. Oncampusnow says:

    This, from the BYU: House of Faith section on “Student Protests.”
    “In May 1970, when several students asked permission to collect signatures on a petition calling for the gradual withdrawal of congressional funding for the war, school officials responded by banning all petitions from campus. Wilkinson explained feebly that with the approach of the end of the semester, “students need all of their time to adequately prepare” for final exams…”

    This week, BYU has approved a couple of student protests related to the Cheney event, so see, we’re progressing.

  15. I don’t know whether to feel dismayed or heartened when I hear that BYU is allowing students to protest. If there is a Mormon Gandhi out there somewhere, he or she wouldn’t last long at BYU.

  16. Stirling says:

    But, Michael, Gene lasted decades.

  17. JNS, when you state that in that period RFK and republicans spoke on campus, you make it seem like a period in which both democrats and republicans spoke at BYU is ancient history.

    What did you think when democrat politician Tom Lantos spoke at BYU’s commencement in 2001? You would have surely had a view — weren’t you at Berkley by then and wasn’t he the Rep for your District?

    What did you think when democrat politician Harry Reid spoke at BYU Law School’s graduation in 2004?

    Now, a republican politician is speaking at a BYU commencement. Thus, this is a period in which both democrat politicians and republican politicians speak at BYU — such is not merely a historical footnote, as your comment seems to suggest. Within six years, BYU has had two democrat politicians and one republican politician speak at its graduation ceremonies.

  18. Peter LLC says:

    Good point, John. Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Tom Lantos is the polar opposite of Cheney, though I would add that his party membership is problably the least important distinction.

  19. The problem is not that Cheney’s a Republican and that BYU is conservative. It is that this is Cheney, the heart of all that is wrong with this administration. It is one thing to show respect to the office of the Vice President, but Cheney does not deserve that respect because of his actions. He forfeited any respect by what he has done.

    It is most instructive that the White House instigated this. It shows that Cheney really has nowhere else to speak without facing significant opposition.

    Was any man previously so divisive as Cheney invited to BYU?

  20. My point to JNS was to follow-up on his thought that the period in which both democrats and republicans spoke at BYU is in the past. Recent history suggests otherwise. The Cheney bashing probably more appropriately belongs on Ronan’s thread, not Stirling’s.

  21. Looking at the Cheney invitation in terms of political balance is not useful. The problem with Cheney is not that he is partisan and divisive. Those are qualities that one has to tolerate in a democracy. The problem with Cheney is that his dishonest actions have gravely harmed the United States to say nothing of the people of Iraq.

  22. Exactly. The problem has nothing to do with politics or with the Church appearing to favor republican politicians over politicians from the Democratic Party. Rather, the problem has to do with BYU and the Church, in this one instance, appearing to support or condone policy decisions of one person, or of the Administration of which he is a part, which are unpopular in Europe. That’s what I was trying to say to Ronan on the other thread, which is probably where discussion of Cheney at BYU belongs, and not here.

  23. which are unpopular in Europe.

    They’re unpopular every where in the world, not just Europe.

  24. Everywhere including the United States.

  25. Was any man previously so divisive as Cheney invited to BYU?

    Reagan spoke at BYU. (I was there – great talk)

  26. Clark–you really think Pres. Reagan was as divisive as Cheney?

  27. As a Democrat, I will say that Reagan was not anywhere in the same city let alone the same ballpark as Cheney.

    Are there any Cheney Democrats?

  28. Are there any Cheney Democrats?

    I’m beginning to wonder whether there are any Cheney republicans.

  29. “Gee..but it’s funny, how time slips away..” I was booed from this Blog when I said going into Iraq was not part of God’s Plan of Salvation. Now it appears, I can speak at BYU!

  30. Make that T & S.

  31. I do remember a neighbor who detested Reagan, so I think he was divisive as to at least one person.

  32. Thanks much for this post, and especially the Dialogue and Student Review links to the speech, and the House of Faith information.

    I’m feeling much better already. Sure, Cheney is speaking at graduation, but now I can put that in a larger context. We had RFK here just a little while ago, and yesterday(Friday, March 30), María del Pilar Nores Bodereau de Garcia, the First Lady of Peru, spoke on campus.
    Who knows, mabye next it will be Chile’s president, Michele Bachelet?

  33. Chris L. says:

    RFK, Goldwater,
    Elder Benson, Elder Brown,
    Cheney…. who?
    If I brainstorm about what speaker I’d like to invite to campus to help establish an image of BYU (and the church) as a politically balanced institution, I think my first choice would be Jimmy Carter. I’d love to hear him talk about his work on monitoring elections.

  34. Here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about Wilkinson and the delicate issue of speakers allowed at BYU. This event I witnessed in person, lest you think of it as a mere folk tale.

    One week, during Ernie’s administration, the Daily Universe announced that a Russian Communist would speak at the weekly forum assembly. The man was in the U.S. to speak to ordinary citizens about what was going on in the U.S.S.R.; we were promised that he would not serve up propaganda, but simply offer a perspective from the other side, and perhaps answer a few questions. Faculty and students alike were electrified by this turn of events; and the old Smith Fieldhouse was packed when the hour came.

    Ernie himself introduced the speaker, reassuring us that we were not going to hear propaganda, but rather a calm, firsthand view from behind the Iron Curtain.

    The speaker had a heavy accent but was easily understandable and articulate, and, initially, calm. Bit by bit, however, his rhetoric heated up, and soon he was generating accusations against the U.S. government. At one point he said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” To that, someone in the audience yelled out, “Turn down the heat!” Murmurings and mutterings were now swirling around the Fieldhouse.

    At that point, Ernie stood up and re-introduced the speaker, who was of course NOT a Communist, but a professor of political science from a California university. His expertise was in Cold War politics, those of the U.S.S.R. in particular, and he had no alien accent, though I thought I could detect a bit of Idaho twang. He continued to lecture on Soviet politics, but from a solid Republican point of view.

    Afterwards, as the crowds exited the Fieldhouse, a BYU political science professor was overheard to say to a colleague, “Well, that was quite interesting, actually, but it’s just too bad we can’t hear from a real Communist.”

    “A real Communist?” replied his colleague. “Why, we can’t even hear from a real DEMOCRAT!”

  35. “A real Communist?” replied his colleague. “Why, we can’t even hear from a real DEMOCRAT!”

    And the difference would be….?

    Just kidding.

  36. Richard Poll says:

    You parrot a talking point from the 1960s era John Birchers, a concept promoted by both Elder Benson and Ernie Wilkinson.
    Is your joke that Benson and Wilkinson and the Birchers once had so much stroke among us?


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