The Legacy of Bobby Kennedy and Why It Matters Now

Robert_F_Kennedy_cropToday marks the forty sixth anniversary of the shooting of Robert F Kennedy, just a few moments after he had won the California primaries for nomination as Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States.  Whether Kennedy would have received the nomination or even the Presidency is unknown and perhaps that is for the best.  However I get asked a lot about why Robert Kennedy means so much to me so I have decided to pen a few thoughts!

Some eight years ago as I began university a friend suggested we hit the cinema.  What else would you expect of film students after all? Someone suggested going to see a film that was just released called Bobby and the matter was settled.  At the time I knew next to nothing of the late Robert F Kennedy save that he was the younger brother of President John F Kennedy.  Throughout the film I was enthralled by the apparent effect Bobby had on the lives of the American people.  As the film closed I was reduced to tears as I listened to the words of his Mindless Menace of Violence speech and to this day the film still has that effect on me.  Since then I have attempted to learn as much about Bobby as possible and see how his legacy endures even now.

What I have learned is that the man Bobby offers just as much forty six years since he was assassinated as he did while alive and there is much we here in Ireland can learn from him.

Consider the night Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.  This took place only a few months before RFK’s own assassination.  All over America news filtered through that this great voice of peace had been silenced and his apparent prophecy the previous afternoon that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land of peace and equality for his people, but that he may not necessarily get there with them had indeed come to pass.  As it did so riots broke out all through the land.  Meanwhile Bobby landed in Indianapolis to attend a political rally in a black neighborhood.  The authorities urged him to cancel it.  The situation was precarious.  How would such a crowd react to a white man breaking the news to them?  Bobby bravely took to the microphone and delivered an unprepared speech, filled with total understanding for how the people felt.  He said:

“In this difficult day…it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in…we can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people against black, white against white, filled with hatred for one another.  Or we can make an effort as Martin Luther King did to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

Strong words and perhaps words that we may in this day and this place wish to take to heart.  In all the bloodstained years of our land, what have we actually learned?  Does the polarization of our side against theirs not still linger on?  The number of “peace walls” continues to grow and so does our separation.  Where is our bravery to take a chance and have a bit of faith in those around us?

Consider this, the night of the assassination there were riots in over one hundred and ten cities across America.  In Indianapolis the people did as Bobby urged them.  They returned home, they prayed for King, and they prayed for their country’s compassion and understanding.

The day after King’s death, Bobby gave his Mindless Menace of Violence speech which has a haunting presence today:

“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, and an uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason…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 that those who live with us are our brothers, that they seek as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfilment they can.”

I ask: what did years of violence in our land accomplish?  What did the riots of recent times accomplish?  What did marching past a Catholic church accomplish?  I look at my country and I do indeed see great signs of hope, but I also see great fear.  A subtle fear which does not address the issue that there is still great violence, there is still civil disorder and this same “spirit” remains.  Have we actually become a nation which has adopted the old adage “Don’t mention the war” with a new addendum “or take accountability for your role in it?”

As Tacitus said of Rome, “They made a desert, and called it Peace”.  Only when we have reduced this land to total rubble and eliminate all life from it can there be a total peace.  What is wrong with an imperfect peace?  With a human peace?

Bobby played his own role in the ongoing Peace Process of Northern Ireland.  His brother and daughter, Edward and Kerry played active roles in the process, as did many American politicians influenced by his life.  And to sum up how Bobby impacted and continues to impact my own life and thinking is impossible in these few short words, but his words which probably impact me the greatest are the following:

“Every 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 centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance…”

I hope that I can be a ripple of hope.  I pray that our people and those in positions of governance can be ripples of hope in ways however small and seemingly insignificant.  That we would openly try not to bind up the wounds of the past but to heal them.  To tear down the walls of oppression and segregation and to act to improve the lot of those around us; the poor, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the dissenters and even the extremists.

Extremism is all around us and this is a real cause for concern.  There are some who call George Galloway MP “radical”, but I can’t help but think we are in need of something radical right now.  William Wilberforce was called radical.  Martin Luther King was considered dangerous.  Dorothy Day was thought of as a mere troublemaker and Robert F Kennedy himself was referred to as ruthless.

Kennedy would later say “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.”

The time has come to be passionate radical advocates.  What should we advocate?  That all are created equal and that we should afford every person the same level of dignity, care and love we desire.  All of us.

In short, that we would as Bobby pleaded so often his people try:

“To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Rest in Peace Robert Kennedy (1925 – 1968)


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