It was forty-five years ago, last week that we lost Robert F. Kennedy – June 6, 1968.
It’s difficult to describe to a younger generation the impact the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy had on so many of us. I was in my first year of college and what captured my interest in this man was something that is sorely missing in today’s politicians. Robert Kennedy had an incredible way of connecting to all of us in spite of background, party or beliefs. Listening to his inspiring words caused me to feel united, not just to America, but the world.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly,” Kennedy once said, “can ever achieve greatly.”
Here’s the commentary I wrote two years ago celebrating his spirit.
During the first of what would become my two favorite years, I was listening to the Moody Blues (on cassette), Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (on vinyl) and Simon and Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence. I studied theater and philosophy, worked on a college production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and rock-climbed. I read Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Carlos Castaneda and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, (not for class credit, just because I wanted to!).
I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (still highly over-rated), Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and went to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet with the most glorious vision of girlhood in my entire young life!
In those days, I was not what you might call, “politically active.” In fact, the only time I became an “activist” was when I showed up at the draft board to cement my student deferment status. However, 1968 was the first time I was inspired by the words of a politician. His name was Robert Kennedy.
“A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”
What resonated for me was someone who was not only candid and credible, but sincerely passionate about what he stood for. He wanted an end to the war in Vietnam. He stood up against racism, poverty and injustice.
“These days, you don’t find politicians telling people what they don’t want to hear,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, said. “But [Robert Kennedy] did that all the time.”
“Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
It seems strangely sad to realize that Kennedy’s words are just as relevant as ever. Exactly two months before the violent end of his own life, Robert Kennedy spoke in Cleveland, Ohio On the Mindless Menace of Violence. It remains one of the most powerful and compelling speeches I have ever read.
It’s a testament to Kennedy’s intelligence and oratory that he was able to distill into a little more than a thousand words, a great and grave problem – one that continues to challenge us today. Although he offered no specific solutions, he puts us on the path to a resolution if we are bold enough and humble enough to take it.
“This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.
“It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.
“Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet.
“No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.
“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”
” ‘Among free men,’ said Abraham Lincoln, ‘there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.’
“Yet we 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.
“Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
“For there 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 skin has 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 breaking 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.
“I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he 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 learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.
“Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
“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 others. 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. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
“But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
“Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
Clearly, Kennedy’s words are easier said than done. However, good character is formed by living under conditions that demand good conduct. Borrowing Kennedy’s spirit, let’s try this:
Let’s try working with others in a truly cooperative way.
Let’s take responsibility more seriously than we take ourselves.
Let’s recognize that we can be honest and fair and still be tough.
Let’s criticize less and inspire more.
Let’s pursue a reputation for honor more than we honor elevating the bottom line.
Let’s strive to become a little more heroic in our own lives.
And let’s realize that we may be able to negotiate many things, but we will never negotiate our integrity.
We can achieve all these things and get the job done, if we think before we act, and treat others as we wish to be treated. We can if we consider that it’s okay to be skeptical, but destructive to be relentlessly cynical because it damages the long-term ideal that we can always be better than we are.
We can, if we remember that we are all in this together and that “This country,” as Teddy Roosevelt tells us, “will not be a good place for any of us to live in, unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”
It’s time to return to the kind of passion, courage and optimism that Robert Kennedy inspired in so many.
“All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”
To all of us who listened, dreamed and believed, it’s time to look to the leader inside us all.