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Local icon reminisces on his march with history

on May 2, 2010

What George Livingston remembers most about Robert F. Kennedy is the toll the late-senator’s frenetic California presidential campaign was exacting on his slight body.

“He was a zombie, he was so tired,” Livingston said.

The meeting took place at an Oakland church days before Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968 in Los Angeles.

“He was in the ghetto, because he had to get a black base, and he did very well,” Livingston said.

Livingston, 76, served Richmond as one of its first black council members and mayors throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He shared memories of Kennedy while sitting in his living room last month. Livingston still lives in Richmond. (Click play above to hear the full radio broadcast of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in the area that aired Thursday on KALX).

Kennedy wasn’t the only transcendent national figure with whom Livingston interacted in the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. also left an imprint on Livingston during a local visit that decade.

Former Mayor George Livingston

A photo of Livingston greeting King at Contra Costa College in San Pablo hangs on his living room wall. Livingston was in the student body government at the college, and was tapped to help host King for a few minutes before the civil rights leader took the stage.

“He asked me if I had ever thought of getting into politics, and I said, ‘not really,'” Livingston chuckled.

But Livingston recognized the gravity of the meeting.

“He was that type of guy who you just wanted to be around,” Livingston said. “He was a very deep thinker, and the things he would say to you, it was just like glue: it would stick to you. I will always cherish those moments.”

Livingston veered back to his memories of Kennedy.

“I really admired him. His trying, his body couldn’t take it,” Livingston said. “He would have made a good president. In fact, I think he would have made a better president than John Kennedy. I think he was more liberal than John Kennedy.”

Livingston, his body still lanky and lithe like it was when was a towering figure in local politics, spoke while his young grandson sat beside him. He said he loves to share his stories with his family.

“I share with my grandson, and my son and others, that I had a chance to know and to meet the man who was the man,” Livingston said.

Livingston was born to a poor family in Oklahoma in the 1930s. For him, life began in a time and place in which dark skin was a de facto limit on what one could become.

Several times as he spoke, he paused to hold long gazes at his pre-teen grandson.

“One day he can be a leader,” Livingston said, smiling.

When he reminisces about all the progress he has seen in his lifetime, the opening of the way for leaders like himself and beyond, Livingston is almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the change.

“The thing that surprises me most is to see a black president; I never dreamed of anything like that, it didn’t seem to be possible,” he said, shaking his head. “And I remember when I became mayor of the city of Richmond, my grandfather, who was the son of a slave, came to see it, and he cried. He couldn’t believe he saw his grandson as mayor of a large city.”

Livingston paused long at the thought of his grandparents.

“If they could see (President) Obama, oh wow,” he said. “That would be unbelievable.”

20100501_rfk.mp3|Click here|Click here to hear about MLK and RFK’s historical connections to Richmond.

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