Forty-one years ago, on the morning of June 4, 1968, reporter Jack Newfield rose early and drove around Los Angeles before the sun came up, before the polls for the California primary opened. What he saw contradicted the conventional wisdom that people of color and poverty didn’t vote. He saw long lines of people in some of the poorest areas of the city lined up to vote for Senator Robert Francis Kennedy. In fact, more people would vote in Watts and East LA than in Beverly Hills in that election.
A great part of Robert Kennedy’s appeal came from his authenticity. Unlike most people in politics, he didn’t focus on the politically expedient. Kennedy campaigned for gun control in pro-gun Oregon. He chided medical students seeking Vietnam War draft deferments because he didn’t feel it was fair to put the burden of fighting the war solely on the backs of the poor. He complained many times about welfare, feeling that it caused dependency, when what the people really needed were jobs. In South Africa, he denounced apartheid and wondered aloud, “What if God is black?”
As a Senator, frustrated by the slow pace of the legislative process, he became a community organizer, rounding up leaders in both the activist and business communities to turn an economically disadvantaged New York neighborhood into the nation’s first community redevelopment program, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. As Newfield wrote in his memoir “RFK,” “Kennedy seemed to believe in moral outrage as public policy. He felt that the ‘unacceptable’ – like living conditions in Bed-Stuy – had to be changed, not just deplored in speeches.”
Kennedy became a fierce opponent of the war he and his brother helped to start. Under pressure from Tom Wicker on “Face the Nation” as to his contradictory stance of opposing the Vietnam War while refusing (at that point) to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic party presidential nomination, Kennedy breached his own dam, saying:
“…we’re killing innocent people because we don’t want to have the war fought on America soil, or because they’re 12,000 miles away and they might get to be 11,000 miles away. … Those of us who stay here in the United States, we must feel it when we use napalm, when a village is destroyed and civilians killed. This is also our responsibility. This is a moral obligation and a moral responsibility for us here in the United States. And I think we have forgotten that. … I think we’re going to have a difficult time explaining that to ourselves.”
The day after Kennedy’s now famous speech in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Kennedy spoke these words at a luncheon in Cleveland:
“What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? … [W]e seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.”
Kennedy also spoke of “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 skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
But Kennedy’s strongest words could well be repeated today when considering the terrible conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even the rhetoric of hate radio, for that matter:
“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered. …
“We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land.”
Kennedy’s own life was short indeed. He lived only eight more weeks after that speech before an assassin’s bullet took him down in the pantry in Los Angeles.
Kennedy was asked by the British TV host David Frost just a month before his death how he would like to be remembered.
Kennedy responded, “Something about the fact that I made some contribution to either my country, or those who were less well off. I think back again to what Camus wrote about the fact that perhaps this world is a world in which children suffer, but we can lessen the number of suffering children, and if you do not do this, then who will do it? I’d like to feel that I’d done something to lessen that suffering.”
Whose suffering can you lessen today? Will you do it? There are so many ways. If you don’t see a direct path, consider contributing money to a charity. If you have no money, consider volunteering at a homeless shelter. Write a letter to your Congressperson asking them to create more jobs. Do something today, in honor of one of the best leaders this country never got the chance to have at the helm.
Labels: assassination, David Frost, kennedy, RFK, Robert Kennedy