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  • Writer's pictureArnie Bernstein

Robert F. Kennedy and His Timeless Speech for America

Today, June 5, 2021, is the 53rd commemoration of the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, killed by an assassin's bullet. I use the word "commemoration" rather than "anniversary." The latter word denotes something happy; "commemoration" honors something more somber, a day that should be remembered for reasons sad and difficult. I remember clearly when Robert Kennedy was shot. I am too young to remember when his older brother was assassinated in Dallas, but the brothers loomed large in my Kennedy Democrat household. On that morning, I watched news bulletins on the black and white television in my parents' living room. Robert Kennedy was dead. I ran to tell my parents, who probably already knew. It was one of those crystalline moments, just as President Kennedy's assassination was to a previous generation and 9/11 was to a later generation.

Remembrance and Never Forgetting

I will always remember where I was when I heard the news. It was nearing the beginning of summer, and I was almost done with the third grade. The assassination spoke to me. It said: "you are part of something bigger than yourself." As I grew older I read with intensity the words, the speeches, the biographies of "Bobby." The lessons learned were fundamentals in decency, speaking to how we are all interconnected as a nation and a nation's citizens. For years I was filled with inexplicable sadness every June 5, something I did not understand. Finally, it struck me: it was the day Robert Kennedy died. A man who united people across so many different lines, race, class, generations. Kennedy certainly was not always a paragon of what became his legacy. His early work for Senator Joseph McCarthy is difficult to comprehend and accept. One cannot overlook Kennedy's reputation as "Ruthless Bobby," doing what he had to do to get John Kennedy elected to congress, then senator, then president, and never mind who got knocked around in the battle. His approval as Attorney General of secret wiretaps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., hoping to find dirt on the civil rights leader for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, is unconscionable. And yet….

From Tragedy, Transformation

It was after his brother's assassination that Robert F. Kennedy becomes my hero. His plunge into philosophical study of the ancient Greeks and his own Roman Catholicism, searching for the deeper meanings of life, is complex. Kennedy emerged a different man after this intense period of reflection. "Ruthless Bobby" transformed into something stronger, a man of compassion and hope, with the firm conviction that our country and its people could improve on America's faults and strengths, with constant societal evolution driving the ongoing great experiment that is America. The children of that generation of Kennedys often report that people come up to them and say, "your father had profound impact on my own life." I was one of those people. When his son Chris Kennedy ran for Governor of Illinois in this year's primary election, I went up to him at a campaign rally. Those are the words I spoke to him; though I'm sure Chris had heard a variation on this sentence countless of times, we held hands and he said, "Thank you. That's so sweet of you." Even now, I as I type these words, my eyes well up. In my writing, in my work as a teacher, I like to think that Robert Kennedy's life and work have some influence. I write about the triumph of good people over bad, even in the face of unspeakable tragedies and unmitigated evils.

Kennedy’s Vision of a Better America

Many of my college writing students come from hard backgrounds; some are DACA students with compounded troubles. In my classrooms students are demanded to be their best, to express themselves fully, and told that what they have to say matters—because of who they are and from where they come in life story I always conclude my semesters with words of wisdom far beyond my poor ability to express myself. I have more or less settled on Robert Kennedy's speech on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was April 4, 1968. Now running for president himself, Kennedy was scheduled to give a campaign speech in a hardcore impoverished and mostly African American Indianapolis ghetto. Kennedy knew that he had to say something. One can only imagine what thoughts were going through Kennedy's head on the night of another assassination, not even five years after his brother was killed. Members of his campaign staff told him not to do it, that it was too dangerous to go out there. Yet one member of the Kennedy team, future congressman John L. Lewis disagreed. This was the time; this was the place for a leader to speak. It must be done.

Kennedy was the right man in a dark American moment. Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck (imagine a campaign rally like that today!). He asked his team, "do they know about Martin Luther King?" No, the crowd did not. He told the people that he had some sad news—and screams filled the air after he reported what had happened in Memphis that night. Kennedy then spoke to larger issues. Though he had prepared notes for a speech, they remained rolled up in his hand as Kennedy spoke. His extemporaneous words came not from the head but from the heart. That night, riot-fueled fires burned through major urban areas across the country. Not in Indianapolis. Many credit Kennedy's speech as the balm needed at that difficult time in that difficult hour.

And then, almost two months to the day after King was killed, Kennedy himself was struck down by an assassin's bullets. Today the spot where he gave that speech is a memorial park honoring the two men. I often think of this speech. It is not a speech of regret and sadness, but as Kennedy said "…of love, and wisdom, and compassion towards one another…" With the words delivered on that April night, one of the most powerful speeches of the modern era, Robert Kennedy continues to speak across the generations, a rallying cry for decency and goodness that is forever a part of his vision for America.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy

April 4, 1968

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