I finished the book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, this past weekend. Learning about Bobby Kennedy’s story for the first time inspired me immensely. His Ripple of Hope speech in South Africa and his speech in Indiana after learning of MLK’s assassination (if you haven’t listened to this one, please do) are just incredible.
But its more than his speeches that inspire me. It was his deep, deep empathy for others; his focus on helping the disadvantaged; his fight against the power of the privileged; and his want to do the most good with his life as he possibly could. He recognized that he had all the privileges a person could have in the world, and rather than bask in them he sought to use them to help those without such advantages.
I’m struck by how much his words are needed now with the current state of the United States. I pulled some text from one of his most powerful speeches, given at the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968.
Excerpts from that speech:
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.
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 make it easier for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition that they desire.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force. Too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of other human beings. But this much is clear: violence breeds violence; repression breeds retaliation; and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.
…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, inaction, and 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. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man amongst other men.
And this too afflicts us all. For when you teach a man to hate and to fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your home 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 to be mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as alien, alien men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in a 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.
We must admit to ourselves that our children’s future cannot be built on the misfortune of another’s. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or by revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in this land of ours. Of course we cannot banish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
Surely this bond of common fate, surely this bond of common goals can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at those of us, of our fellow man, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Tennyson wrote in Ulysses: that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.