Saturday, September 03, 2005

I'm Missing Bobby Kennedy today

As I wait for a true leader to emerge in this tragedy, I remember one who, 37 years ago, tried to raise the visibility of the impoverished among us. Robert Francis Kennedy, brother of JFK, walked through ghettos, picked up poor children and hugged them, saying that love was as important as food. I can't put my finger on the exact quote at the moment - it moved me the first time I read it.

What might he have said to the looting in New Orleans? "There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law...To many Negroes the law is the enemy. In Harlem, in Bedford-Stuyvestant it has almost always been used against them." (From Arthur Schlesinger's biography Robert Kennedy and His Times, p. 780.)

What might he have felt as he looked at the starving faces of the abandoned in New Orleans, Biloxi, and nearby areas? Revulsion, and anger. That's what he felt when he saw a girl with a mangled face in a Puerto Rican slum in New York City. He asked the mother what had happened to the girl. Rats had bitten off her face when she was a baby. "Kennedy was outraged: how could such things continue to 'happen in the richest city on earth?'" (Ibid., p. 783)

Kennedy was never a fan of welfare, but was a strong believer in creating jobs for those who needed them - "an effort that we know is the real solution." (Ibid.)

And Robert Kennedy was a man of action. He was famous--some would say infamous--for his ability to get things done. And he was angry at white northern liberals who were sending aid to the south while ignoring the poor and impoverished in their own back yard.

In 1966, Kennedy actively sought the support of business leaders, many of whom loathed him based on his reputation. Kennedy was not deterred, and persisted until he signed them on for an effort to revitalize the ghetto area of Bedford-Stuyvesant, hoping it would be a model for the reform of other ghettos. He introduced a bill creating housing and jobs in poor areas coupled with tax incentives and low-interest loans. This threatened President Johnson, who put forth his own, weaker proposal.

"How can they be so petty?" Kennedy demanded of Jack Newfield. "I worked on my plan for six months, and we talked to everyone in the Administration in all the relevant agencies. We accepted many of their ideas and put them in our bill. Now they come out with this thing, and the first I hear about it is on television. They didn't even try to work something out together. To them, it's all just politics." (Ibid, p. 789)

To Kennedy, it was about lives, not politics. He spoke up, and often. "Action in adequate measure can wait no longer. There are children in the United States of America with bloated bellies and sores of disease on their bodies. They have cuts and bruises that will not heal correctly in a timely fashion, and chronically runny noses. There are children in the United States who eat so little that they fall asleep in school and do not learn. We must act, and we must act now." (from Make Gentle the Life of this World - quotations from Robert Kennedy and from others he collected in a diary. The book was compiled by his son Maxwell Kennedy. p. 59.)

What might Kennedy have said over FEMA's response to the horrific situation in New Orleans? "[T]here is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skins have different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaknig of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this, too, afflicts us all." (Ibid, pp. 59-60.)

In the end, it was all rather simple to Kennedy. "If we cannot feed the children of our nation, there is very little we will be able to succeed in doing to live up to the principals which our founders set out nearly two hundred years ago."

After a primary victory in California that gave him a genuine shot at being the Democratic nominee for President in 1968, Robert Kennedy was killed, and the last government official to willingly put his life on the line for the chance to help the rest of us was gone.

As Jack Newfield so eloquently stated in his book, Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir:


“Now I realized what makes our generation unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961, and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first generation that learned from experience ... that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope. The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone.”

I refuse to let that stone sit at the bottom of the hill, no matter how much despair I feel, and truly, that is almost all I can feel these days. I sent some money today to Habit for Humanity. It might as well have been Red Cross or any of a number of excellent agencies. But I wanted to send a signal too, because former President Jimmy Carter has volunteered with Habitat for over twenty years. For all the flack he got while in office, he has proved to be one of the most caring, moral leaders of our time. I wanted to honor someone still living, for a change. I'm too depressed from mourning the dead. I hope you too can get beyond your own mourning long enough to send $10, $50, $100, $1000 - whatever you can afford, to one of the groups aiding the newly homeless and newly unemployed victims of Katrina. Every dollar helps.

Bless you for caring.

2 Comments:

Blogger Morgan Wolf said...

Hi Lisa,

Thank you for the beautiful post on Bobby Kennedy. It reminded me of things I've lately forgotten.

BTW: You're the only other person I know, beside myself of course, who thinks Jimmy Carter was a great president and is a great man.

Blessings to you,
Morgan

7:33 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Thanks, Morgan. I appreciate your kind words. Yes - I always liked Jimmy Carter and thought he was a man who truly understood nuance, something missing of late in the current White House. And re Bobby, well, we were lucky enough to see his kind once. I hope I live long enough to see someone of similar caliber in high office again.

12:05 AM  

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