Author’s note: It is 47 years since Bobby Kennedy was shot, following his victory in the Democratic 1968 Presidential primary in California. Two months earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. Those were turbulent times. America produced these two incredible leaders, whose work and memory inspire the world to this day. They were engaged and believed in change through peaceful means. They were visionaries who made us believe that one person can make a difference. We must not forget. (June 5, 2015)
It was 45 years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, just after winning the California presidential primary against fellow Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Over the years, we like to remind ourselves of what could have been, had he lived. Perhaps, in this turbulent world, we might do well to recall who he was and how he inspired a generation.
Bobby Kennedy was taught from a very young age about the importance of service, and chose a life very much in the service of making his brother, John, the president of the United States. During his brother’s administration, he served as attorney general and acted as President Kennedy’s leading confidante on a host of issues and crises. Historical accounts of Bobby Kennedy’s role in combating organized crime, pushing for civil rights and being instrumental in ending the potential nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have now become the stuff of legends.
Despite those achievements, I prefer to recall the Bobby Kennedy who grew before our very eyes as he assumed the mantle of his brother’s legacy after 1963, and how, in his own right, he was able to carve out his personal identity through the power of words and his active engagement in social causes. Who can forget the comforting and unifying words of Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King, Jr. died? How about his active support for César Chavez during the latter’s hunger strike on behalf of Latino farm workers? And who can forget his visit to South Africa and his condemnation of apartheid before white university students. when he stated, “Suppose God is black?”His era was undoubtedly challenging—civil rights, his brother’s assassination, Vietnam, the risk of nuclear confrontation—but Kennedy was able to engage his fellow citizens in finding solutions, questioning conventional mores, and making us dream of a better world. While he became more of an idealist in his later years as senator, he was still a realist in terms of getting things done.
He cared for those in need, but above all, he chose to educate us. On democracy, he told us: “Democracy is no easy form of government. Few nations have been able to sustain it. For it requires that we take the chances of freedom; that the liberating play of reason be brought to bear on events filled with passion; that dissent be allowed to make its appeal for acceptance; that men chance error in their search for the truth.” These words hold true to this very day.
He refused to accept the conventional wisdom about how to define the real wealth of a nation. He considered the gross national product an imperfect measurement, and argued that the richness and well-being of people went beyond the calculation of what we produce, buy and sell: “GNP … does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning.”
Finally, the quality Bobby Kennedy respected most was courage. His words best express how he regarded the importance of courage in changing society: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man (or a woman) stands up for an ideal, 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.”
Powerful and still relevant words from an extraordinary man who made us dream. Forty-five years after his passing, Bobby Kennedy continues to inspire.