June 6, 2018
Remembering Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK)
RFK’s speech in apartheid South Africa remains relevant 50 years after his assassination
By James Hohmann
with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve
THE BIG IDEA: Fifty years ago tonight, Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic primary for president in California. The 42-year-old died of his wounds the next day. Two years to the day before his assassination, on June 6, 1966, the senator delivered the greatest speech of his life at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
A young student leader named Ian Robertson, who ran the National Union of South African Students, invited Kennedy to come for their Day of Affirmation, when members of the multiracial group, which resisted the apartheid regime, rededicated themselves to the ideals of freedom. The tradition started after the government banned nonwhite students from universities in 1959.
South Africa reluctantly agreed to grant Kennedy a visa to the country, and authorities only relented because they were worried about the optics of turning him away. The government, which had just expelled a New York Times reporter for critical coverage, denied entry to 40 print and television journalists who wanted to cover Kennedy’s trip.
Two weeks before Kennedy’s arrival, the government banned Robertson, 21, from participating in public life for five years because of his activism. The student who had invited Kennedy to speak was forbidden to be in a room with more than one other person at a time. An empty chair was left on stage as a symbol of his absence. “It’s too bad he can’t be with us today,” said Kennedy.
Before an audience that was all white – the government wouldn’t have it any other way – Kennedy delivered a paean to the freedom of speech, protest and the press. “The enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society,” he said. “The essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.”
The speech captured the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 1960s as well as any other. It’s worth revisiting not just for historical purposes, though, but because of the timelessness and universality of its message. Fifty-two years later, Kennedy’s words feel relevant as President Trump attacks NFL players for nonviolently protesting police brutality and racial injustice. They feel important on the morning after the Supreme Court upheld a baker’s refusal to make a cake for a gay couple because of their sexual orientation. They seem vital as the United States deemphasizes democracy promotion as an aim of foreign policy. Each day’s newspaper brings fresh reminders that, as Ted Kennedy put it 12 years after losing his third and final brother, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.
“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans,” RFK said in Cape Town. “It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.”
|Robert F. Kennedy – Day of Affirmation Speech [A Tiny Ripple of Hope]|
Kennedy opened with some mischievous misdirection. “I came here,” he said, “because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”
He noted that more progress had been made to give rights to African Americans during the previous five years than in the century before. But he emphasized how much more remained to be done. “We have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in education, in employment, in housing, but these laws alone cannot overcome the heritage of centuries – of broken families and stunted children and poverty and degradation and pain,” Kennedy said, making an observation that, sadly, is still very true today.
Then RFK, a devout Catholic, noted that his own Irish ancestors had faced discrimination only a generation before. “For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class or race – discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution,” he said. “Even as my father grew up in Boston, signs told him that ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Catholic to head the nation. But how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic or of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in slums untaught (and) unlearned, their potential lost forever to the nation and human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?”
Kennedy’s willingness to acknowledge America’s flaws, and her ongoing struggle to live up to her ideals, added credence to his message. “Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others,” he said. “What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people, and a world of immense and dizzying change.”
The remarks were intended to give hope to political prisoners and young people who dreamed of a brighter future. Kennedy met with Robertson, the student organizer, in his apartment one-on-one, the only arrangement allowed. Kennedy noted that his apartment was probably bugged and told him to stomp on the floor and turn on the faucet to interfere with listening devices placed by the government. When Robertson asked how he knew that, Kennedy replied: “I used to be attorney general.”
Kennedy warned the thousands of young people who could come see him speak that the road ahead would be strewn with dangers. He identified four:
“First, is the danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. …
“The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. …
“A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.
“For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education.”
The senator, carrying his brother’s torch, concluded with a testament to the power of the individual to make a difference. He noted many of the world’s greatest movements have flowed from the work of a single man. He cited Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson. Kennedy also invoked Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently won the Nobel Prize and would be assassinated a few months before him in 1968. King had been invited by the same student group, but the government denied his visa because he was black.
But he said most change comes from people who are part of mass movements, like those who resisted Nazism in Europe during World War II or Peace Corps volunteers. “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation,” he said. “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Those words are etched in stone at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. When I visited yesterday morning, there were 150 students gathered by the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s tomb. But despite the impending anniversary, no one stood at his brother’s final resting place nearby. At the bottom of a grassy knoll, placed next to his modest tombstone, there was just one white rose – dotted with raindrops and wrapped in the colors of the Irish flag.