We Can't Forget Bobby
Fifty years ago, Bobby Kennedy was murdered: American royalty who never quite reached his throne. Remembering Bobby Kennedy, we see a man tormented by demons and who, unlike many men whose temperaments harden with time, delved further within himself to find a true idealism. Although his journey was cut short by a gruesome act which deeply wounded the American psyche, we cannot forget the ideals he championed.
Bobby was born the runt of seven Kennedy children. His father fostered a sense of spirited competition between the brothers, but Bobby was believed to be “soft” and was disregarded by his father. As Kennedy put in it later years, "When you come from that far down, you have to struggle to survive." This cemented a tenacious and harsh disposition which earned Bobby the nickname “Black Robert” from his older brother John. Not until John Kennedy's first Senate campaign did Bobby's father view him as a productive member of the family worthy of the Kennedy name.
Bobby harbored a darker side which is seldom depicted. He was an eager friend and aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, disdained the Fifth Amendment, and utilized a governmental position to carry out a blood feud against Teamster Jimmy Hoffa. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the potential goodness in Bobby before he himself did. Speaking with an aide Dr. King is quoted, “Somewhere in this man sits good. Our task is to find his moral center and win it to our cause.” His years as Attorney General saw Bobby turned from ideologue to idealist. The assassination of his older brother forever shook Bobby loose from his demons and made him one with the angels of his better nature.
In his later years, the Kennedy misfit would spend his time speaking to society's outcasts. As the junior senator from New York, he traveled to South Africa to shed light upon and speak out against apartheid. In five days his words ignited something deep in those people; the next few generations of South Africans embraced the Kennedy name amongst their own people. On June 6, 1966, Bobby gave his “Day of Affirmation” speech at the University of Cape Town. He extolled the virtues of Western liberty and how individual people hold the responsibility to protect the liberties of all men. Society, associations, and government are not there to rule, but are in place so that all people have the opportunity to rise based upon their virtue and vice. People embark into such associations, relinquishing some individualism in an effort to promote the greatest good for themselves. Bobby asserts that it is the individual actions of the people that allow the hopeful tide of liberty to sweep the globe:
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.
Following the speech Bobby took questions from the students in the audience. One asked whether Bobby believed that if he was tougher on communism during his time as Attorney General, then President Kennedy might not have been assassinated. He stopped as a deathly hush filled the room and Robert Kennedy, the liberal lion, made his stance clear: “Is that all we believe in, Anti-Communism? Is that all we stand for in our own countries, in our own hearts?” Bobby challenged the audience to consider issues beyond communism. He asserted, “We stand for human freedom, we stand for human dignity, and we stand for ending discrimination, and ending hunger. And we stand for extending the cause of freedom and justice all over the globe.” This is what made America great for Bobby and forever affirmed Bobby Kennedy—the idealist—in the history books. He told the audience that people and nations sought out the United States, both as allies and a potential home, because the United States stands for good in the world, something far more than just the end of communism.
On June 16, 1968 Newsweek published an article entitled “Remembering Robert F. Kennedy” in which they claimed something troubling: “Yet the parallels between his murder and John Kennedy's were only too apparent, and the most awful of all was its absurdity. For each died a martyr without a cause…” When Bobby Kennedy died, questions surrounding his martyrdom abounded in the hearts of Americans and around the globe, but the cause he championed was always clear. Bobby went from Attorney General—arguably the second most powerful man in the world—to a junior senator from New York. While he did pass legislation to help his constituents, he did not represent them to the best of his ability. Bobby chose to stay in public office, but utilized his position to make trips around the world. He used his trips to bring attention to the injustices experienced daily by those who were sheltered from the spotlight. He showcased his empathy to get his fellow man to follow suit. His surprising presidential campaign would only further this message—his canceled rally in Indianapolis most of all.
On the night of April 4, 1968 as Bobby boarded a plane for a flight to Indianapolis, he was informed Dr. King had been shot, and upon arrival he found out Dr. King had died. City officials were afraid of riots and warned Bobby that they would not protect him while speaking in the predominantly African-American neighborhood. If you listen to a recording Kennedy is heard asking an aide whether or not the crowd knew of the King tragedy, and his aide responded stating that they left it for Bobby to announce. And he did so: Bobby, speaking off-the-cuff and from the depths of his soul, addressed the crowd. He implored them to not allow anger and fear to fill the void that the death of Dr. King deepened, urging Americans, now more than ever, to take to heart what Dr. King preached his whole life. Kennedy exclaimed:
But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "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 or lawlessness; but 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 they be black.
Bobby beseeched the people not to just accept their fate, but to shape their destiny. They could turn this tragedy into further heartbreak and muddy the cause Dr. King strove for, or they could embrace one another and get through this most troubling time. Riots broke out all through the United States that night, but not in Indianapolis.
History has been kind to Bobby. It is easier to look back fondly on idealists who spoke of peace, tolerance, and understanding when war and violence dominate the current news cycle. Bobby was not perfect. In fact, he was a tragically flawed man, but he took what he had and strove “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Bobby's mission is still as important today as it was when he died for it. The people together must strive for justice, love, and wisdom if they wish to continue the cause of liberty.