TOPIC: Civil Rights
November 16, 2005
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Ceremony
& commemoration of Robert F. Kennedy’s 80th birthday
Thank you. It’s
an honor to be here today, and I’d also like to congratulate
Stephen Bradbury on his award and on all the wonderful work he’s
been doing on behalf of the people of New Orleans.
I come to this
with tremendous humility. I was only seven when Bobby Kennedy died.
Many of the people in this room knew him as brother, as husband,
as father, as friend.
I knew him only
as an icon. In that sense, it is a distance I share with most of
the people who now work in this Capitol – many of whom were
not even born when Bobby Kennedy died. But what’s interesting
is that if you go throughout the offices in the Capitol, everywhere
you’ll find photographs of Kennedy, or collections of his
speeches, or some other memento of his life.
Why is this? Why
is it that this man who was never President, who was our Attorney
General for only three years, who was New York’s junior Senator
for just three and a half, still calls to us today? Still inspires
our debate with his words, animates our politics with his ideas,
and calls us to make gentle the life of a world that’s too
often coarse and unforgiving?
has to do with charisma and eloquence – that unique ability,
rare for most but common among Kennedys, to sum up the hopes and
dreams of the most diverse nation on Earth with a simple phrase
or sentence; to inspire even the most apathetic observers of American
Part of it is
his youth – both the time of life and the state of mind that
dared us to hope that even after John was killed; even after we
lost King; there would come a younger, energetic Kennedy who could
make us believe again.
But beyond these
qualities, there’s something more.
Within the confines
of these walls and the boundaries of this city, it becomes very
easy to play small-ball politics. Somewhere between the partisan
deadlock and the twenty-four hour news cycles, the contrived talking
points and the focus on the sensational over the substantive, issues
of war and poverty, hopelessness and lawlessness become problems
to be managed, not crises to be solved. They become fodder for the
Sunday show scrum, not places to find genuine consensus and compromise.
And so, at some point, we stop reaching for the possible and resign
ourselves to that which is most probable.
This is what happens
And yet, as this
goes on, somewhere another child goes hungry in a neighborhood just
blocks away from one where a family is too full to eat another bite.
Somewhere another hurricane survivor still searches for a home to
return to or a school for her daughter. Somewhere another twelve-year-old
is gunned down by an assailant who used to be his kindergarten playmate,
and another parent loses their child on the streets of Tikrit.
there have also always been people who believe that this isn’t
the way it was supposed to be – that things should be different
in America. People who believe that while evil and suffering will
always exist, this is a country that has been fueled by small miracles
and boundless dreams – a place where we’re not afraid
to face down the greatest challenges in pursuit of the greater good;
a place where, against all odds, we overcome.
was one of these people.
In a nation torn
by war and divided against itself, he was able to look us in the
eye and tell us that no matter how many cities burned with violence,
no matter how persistent the poverty or the racism, no matter how
far adrift America strayed, hope would come again.
It was an idealism
not based in rigid ideology. Yes, he believed that government is
a force for good – but not the only force. He distrusted big
bureaucracies, and knew that change erupts from the will of free
people in a free society; that it comes not only from new programs,
but new attitudes as well.
was not a pie-in-the-sky-type idealism either. He believed we would
always face real enemies, and that there was no quick or perfect
fix to the turmoil of the 1960s.
Rather, the idealism
of Robert Kennedy – the unfinished legacy that calls us still
– is a fundamental belief in the continued perfection of American
It’s a belief
that says if this nation was truly founded on the principles of
freedom and equality, it could not sit idly by while millions were
shackled because of the color of their skin. That if we are to shine
as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we must be respected
not just for the might of our military, but for the reach of our
ideals. That if this is a land where destiny is not determined by
birth or circumstance, we have a duty to ensure that the child of
a millionaire and the child of a welfare mom have the same chance
in life. That if out of many, we are truly one, then we must not
limit ourselves to the pursuit of selfish gain, but that which will
help all Americans rise together.
We have not always
lived up to these ideals and we may fail again in the future, but
this legacy calls on us to try. And the reason it does – the
reason we still hear the echo of not only Bobby’s words, but
John’s and King’s and Roosevelt’s and Lincoln’s
before him – is because they stand in such stark contrast
to the place in which we find ourselves today.
timidity of politics that’s holding us back right now –
the politics of can’t-do and oh-well. An energy crisis that
jeopardizes our security and our economy? No magic wand to fix it,
we’re told. Thousands of jobs vanishing overseas? It’s
actually healthier for the economy that way. Three days late to
the worst natural disaster in American history? Brownie, you’re
doing a heck of a job.
And of course,
if nothing can be done to solve the problems we face, if we have
no collective responsibility to look out for one another, then the
next logical step is to give everyone one big refund on their government
– divvy it up into individual tax breaks, hand ‘em out,
and encourage everyone to go buy their own health care, their own
retirement plan, their own child care, their own schools, their
own roads, their own levees…
We know this as
the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term
for it – Social Darwinism – every man or women for him
or herself. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition
may rise faster than they can afford – tough luck. It allows
us to say to the child who was born into poverty – pull yourself
up by your bootstraps. It let’s us say to the workers who
lose their job when the factory shuts down – you’re
on your own.
But there is a
problem. It won’t work. It ignores our history. Yes, our greatness
as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in
the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual
regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the
country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s
got a shot at opportunity.
reminded us of this. He reminds us still. He reminds us that we
don’t need to wait for a hurricane to know that Third World
living conditions in the middle of an American city make us all
poorer. We don’t need to wait for the 3000th death of someone
else’s child in Iraq to make us realize that a war without
an exit strategy puts all of our families in jeopardy. We don’t
have to accept the diminishment of the American Dream in this country
now, or ever.
for us to meet the whys of today with the why nots we often quote
but rarely live – to answer “why hunger” and “why
homeless,” “why violence” and “why despair”
with “why not good jobs and living wages,” “why
not better health care and world class schools,” “why
not a country where we make possible the potential that exists in
every human being?”
If he were here
today, I think it would be hard to place Robert F. Kennedy into
any of the categories that so often constrain us politically. He
was a fervent anti-communist but knew diplomacy was our way out
of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sought to wage the war on poverty
but with local partnerships and community activism. He was at once
both hard-headed and big-hearted.
And yet, his was
not a centrism in the sense of finding a middle road or a certain
point on the ideological spectrum. His was a politics that, at its
heart, was deeply moral – based on the notion that in this
world, there is right and there is wrong, and it’s our job
to organize our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference.
When RFK made
his famous trip to the Mississippi Delta with Charles Evers in 1967,
the story is often told about the destitute they encountered as
they walked from shack to shack. As they walk into one with hardly
a ceiling and a floor full of holes, Kennedy sees a small child
with a swollen stomach sitting in the corner. He tries and tries
to talk to this child again and again, but he gets no response,
no movement, not even a look of awareness. Just a blank stare from
cold, wide eyes so battered by poverty that they’re barely
And at that point
we’re told that Kennedy begins to cry. And he turns to Evers
and asks “How can a country like this allow it?” and
Evers responds “Maybe they just don’t know.”
spent his life making sure that we knew – not only to wake
us from indifference and face us with the darkness we let slip into
our own backyard, but to bring us the good news that we have it
within our power to change all this; to write our own destiny. Because
we are a people of hope. Because we are Americans.
This is the good
news we still hear all these years later – the message that
still points us down the road that Bobby Kennedy never finished
traveling. It’s a road I hope our politics and our country
begin to take in the months and years to come. Thank you.