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Inspirational Leaders are Timeless; Their Legacies Cannot Be Repealed

In March 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, known as Bobby to his family and “Bob” to colleagues, entered the race for President of the United States.  In doing so, he joined Eugene McCarthy, Democratic Senator from Wisconsin as one of the two anti-Vietnam candidates running against the incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson.  This was a huge political risk; never before in modern times had a sitting president been opposed by a member of his own party for re-nomination.

On April 4, 1968, Bobby was in Indianapolis, Indiana for a planned campaign rally when he and his aides received the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  Police officers refused to accompany him, a sitting United States Senator, to the rally as it was in a neighborhood they deemed unsafe even in the best of times.  Law enforcement officials refused to guarantee the Senator’s safety, given MLK’s death.  Those gathered to hear Senator Kennedy speak had no idea that their hero had been killed by a white assassin.  What follows were RFK’s impromptu remarks.

I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of  you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, speaking to a crowd of black voters in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 4, 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I had never read or listened to this full speech, in fact, I knew little about Bobby Kennedy; little beyond the basic facts of his life and death.  But then I read Chris Matthews’ newest book Bobby Kennedy:  A Raging Spirit and now not only do I know more about the third Kennedy brother, but I think he may have been the most inspirational and successful.  Matthews, a long-time political commentator and host of MSNBC’s Hardball, is an expert in political history and specifically, the John F. Kennedy administration.  Years ago, I read  Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America, and to be honest, I was not convinced of the general thesis; that post-war America was shaped by the competition between two men.  Nor did I think the book to be well-written.

But this biography of Bobby Kennedy spoke to me in surprising ways, perhaps because I did not know his full story.  Eight years younger than Jack and one of nine children, Bobby’s professional and political evolution has been well documented.  The Kennedy sons were all impacted by Joe Sr’s political ambitions and ultimately his personal failures.  But I think my reaction and the emotion that emanated from Bobby’s story was more about who he became and who he inspired than by the sadness of his premature death.

In this post, I want to share my thoughts on Bobby Kennedy and the transformative nature of his character.  I do not intend to write a biography, nor will I write a formal book review.  But there are themes in A Raging Spirit that are as applicable today as they were in the 1960s.  We would all be wise to heed RFK’s words and apply them to challenges and divisions we face today.

RFK’s Evolution from Conservative to Liberal

In our current political environment, ideological purity is rewarded and compromise condemned.  But in Bobby Kennedy’s day, there were far fewer visible differences between Republicans and Democrats and each party maintained a fairly wide ideological spectrum; meaning, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.  Communism’s strength and movement is the primary explanation for bi-partisan cooperation in the post-war era but as the Vietnam War progressed and race relations deteriorated, politicians were forced to take sides not just on policy but on moral and cultural issues.   This ideological evolution was not isolated to Bobby Kennedy but it bears understanding because it helps explain the politics of the time and the progression towards the polarization we see today.  For those of us who would be Bobby’s age had he lived (92), my description of the political environment in the 1950s and 60s may sound familiar.  To me, it is an anathema.

Jack’s assassination, according to Matthews, was a defining moment in Bobby’ transformation from conservative Democrat to liberal icon.  The sudden death of a loved one is always tragic, but to watch it play out on national television as it did in Dallas was devastating to the Kennedy family and especially to Bobby.  In the modern presidency, especially the last 30 years, the president’s closest advisor is often considered to be the First Lady.  She is the first person the president speaks to in the morning and the last person he speaks to at night.  Jack’s closest advisor was Bobby and likewise, as Matthews describes, Bobby was totally focused on Jack’s career.   He was devastated by his death.

It was Bobby’s desire to make Dallas mean something that kept him going.  Matthews notes that after his death, Bobby “found the word ‘poverty’ among some papers on Jack’s desk” and believed that income disparity was his brother’s incomplete agenda item.  Whether that was true I do not know; I guess I’ll have to read Chris’s other book on JFK.  But Bobby believed that his beloved older brother had left the eradication of poverty undone and thus, took up its mantle.  He ran for U.S. Senate from New York and after winning the seat handily joined his brother Ted in the upper chamber.   He traveled the world speaking in foreign countries about the inequities in the United States and the need for racial healing and civil rights.  And he toured the Mississippi Delta, where American citizens were so impoverished that children, with their distended stomachs, had only molasses to eat on a regular basis.  Bobby, from a wealthy, Bostonian family had no idea that Americans lived in such extreme poverty and when he saw it, he knew America could do better.

It was Kennedy’s break with the administration in 1968 over the Vietnam War and his ultimate entry into the Democratic presidential primary process that firmly positioned him on the far left of his party.  Kennedy had evolved from a Democratic conservative, vehemently anti-Communist supporter of Joe McCarthy to a liberal champion of the poor and of racial minorities who had thus far born the brunt of the Vietnam War.  As he campaigned throughout the country in 1968, he was greeted by adoring fans who saw him as the newer version of the New Frontier and as the heroic inspiration that they had once seen in his brother.

RFK’s Legacy

Of utmost importance to Kennedy’s legacy was his ability to evolve.  He went from playing it safe on civil rights to championing them throughout the country, without concern for the political cost.  We do not know what Bobby would have accomplished had he lived beyond 1968.  As Attorney General, he did go after organized crime and racketeering, but he only served three years of a six-year Senate term.  We do not know what he personally would have accomplished had he remained in the Senate or if he would have become president.  We do know what was accomplished by those who were inspired by him.  Senator Ted Kennedy, the youngest Kennedy brother served 47 years in the United States Senate.  Whether you agree with Kennedy’s brand of liberalism or not,  it would be extraordinarily difficult to not find something in Ted’s portfolio of legislation from which we did not all benefit.

Bobby demonstrated the ability to evolve and mature.  He showed us how to admit mistakes and move on.  And, at a critical time in our history, he helped define America’s moral authority.

Listen to this impromptu speech given in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 4, 1968.  In the first few moments, you will hear Bobby ask his aides, “do they know about Martin Luther King?”  He had just been informed that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.  Imagine the images and memories that news invoked.  It had not yet been five years since Jack died and Bobby had never spoken publicly about “the events in Dallas.”

Kennedy was in Indianapolis that night to campaign ahead of the Indiana primary.  He had been scheduled to attend a rally in a black neighborhood to discuss race relations and to “do the political thing.”  Instead, he gave this speech.

1968 or 2017?  Blacks, unfortunately, continue to feel the impact of economic and social injustice.  We still have miles to go before we reach Martin Luther King’s Promised Land.  If he were alive today and held the same convictions he did in 1968, Kennedy would invoke these same words to describe the discrimination and inequities we see in our current culture.  Swap “black people” for Mexicans, Muslims, and “name your ethnic group,” and these remarks could be given by any Democratic politician.

Bobby and then later Ted fought for the working classes and the marginalized.  Their Catholic heritage required that they do so.  Bobby often cited his grandparent’s flight from Ireland during the famine, only to disembark in Boston to find the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in windows.   This was not the America that the Kennedys wanted to pass on to the next generation.  They may have been rich and were entitled, but their Catholic upbringing and their ancestral heritage required that leave the world better than they had found it.

“We have to make an effort”

As I mentioned, I had never read or listened to this speech before reading this biography.  I think Americans learn from an early age that the Kennedy Dynasty is centered around JFK and that the tragedy of his untimely death somehow altered world history.  That may be true.  But perhaps his death altered history in ways we do not realize.  How do you listen to these remarks and not ask yourself why you are not voting for candidates that support criminal justice reform?  When you listen to Bobby’s words, how do you not question yourself for taking a position against gay marriage?  How do you not put yourself in the shoes of the NFL player who kneels during the national anthem in silent protest against police brutality?

Because in these impromptu remarks, made exactly 2 months and 2 days before his own assassination, Robert F. Kennedy asked Black America, the population that had just lost its most beloved hero to racial violence and injustice, to:

Make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

That night, April 4, 1968, there were riots all over America.  Indianapolis was quiet.

There are more leaders like Bobby Kennedy in America and around the world.  Barack Obama was one.  There will be more.  And the exquisite thing about leadership is that those who demonstrate those very rare and inspirational qualities tend to transcend time.  Their legacies cannot be erased and they cannot be repealed.


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