June 6 is an important date in the history of Robert F. Kennedy, for two reasons. I will emphasize the first: June 6, 1966.
Partly for his support of independence movements in Africa as U.S. Attorney-General, and partly because of President John F. Kennedy’s opposition to South Africa’s racist policies, Robert F. Kennedy—then junior Senator from New York—was invited to speak at the annual Day of Affirmation held by the National Union of South African Students,an organization dedicated to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The story of that trip, the message of that speech, and the other significance of this date, after the jump.
Kennedy’s acceptance set off a domestic firestorm in the U.S. William Loeb, publisher of the right-wing newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, wrote:
"Bobby Kennedy is the most vicious and most dangerous leader in the United States today. It would make no more sense to us for South Africa to admit Bobby Kennedy...than it would to take a viper into one’s bed."
Loeb’s editorial reminds us that right wing vituperation is not new. It also reminds me of something Robert Kennedy said on another occasion: "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."
Lyndon Johnson’s White House also opposed the trip. LBJ considered RFK a dangerous political rival. Though the white South African government granted RFK a visa, no government ministers would greet him. The government especially disapproved of the organization he would address, and two weeks before he arrived, the head of NUSAS was banned from political and social activity for five years. Visas to 40 U.S. print and TV reporters requesting to cover the event were denied.
RFK and his entourage landed in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 4, 1966. A loud, demonstrative crowd was at the airport, part of it protesting his presence, part of it welcoming him.
During his several days in South Africa, RFK met with or spoke to a number of groups, and he was typically forthright. He met with white businessmen in Pretoria, who justified apartheid and authoritarian rule because they were "beleaguered" by the majority black population. RFK wondered who was more beleaguered—the businessmen smoking cigars and sipping brandy after dinner, or the now-banned Ian Robertson, head of NUSAS, or the famed writer Alan Paton, whose passport was revoked because of his opposition to apartheid, or Albert Lutili, then president of the African National Congress and winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, who was confined to the immediate vicinity of his rural home.
(During his trip, RFK met with each of them: Robertson, Paton and Lutili.)
He spoke to a group of white university students, and asked them why blacks weren’t allowed to vote or to worship in their churches. "What the hell would you do if you found out that God is black?"
Before an audience of 10,000 at the University of Natal, RFK observed, "Maybe there is a black man outside this room who is brighter than anyone in this room. The chances are that there are many."
At another university he faced a questioner who claimed that blacks were too barbarous to be given political power. RFK responded:
"It was not the black man in Africa who invented and used poison gas and the atomic bomb, who sent six million men and women and children to the gas ovens, and used their bodies as fertilizer."
RFK went to Soweto, the black township, and spoke several times, standing atop his car, on the steps of a church, in a school playground. In another city, he stopped to be greeted by a group of Africans, and sang "We Shall Overcome" with them.
His popularity, particularly with young South Africans—of all races—increased daily on his visit. His presence energized and encouraged the anti-apartheid movement. Once he left, the South African government would not permit him to return. He was called a Communist, as he also was by some in the U.S.
But the highlight of the trip was the address he was invited to give, which some believe is his greatestspeech. He spoke to a young audience of some 15,000 on the Day of Affirmation: June 6, 1966.
He began by talking about a country:
"settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage."
And then employing the humorous but meaningful irony so characteristic of JFK and RFK (and their speechwriters), he said:
I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
But even though this was a description of the history of both the U.S. and South Africa, it was not simply a rhetorical ploy. Throughout the first part of his speech, he continued to describe the American ideals of racial equality, and the difficulties America historically had in living up to them. In explaining those ideals, his audience naturally applied them to their own country.
For example, he spoke about freedom of speech, but also
"the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men’s lives.... Therefore, the essential humanity of man can be protected and preserved only where government must answer -- not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, not just to those of a particular race, but to all of the people."
He related the struggle of African Americans in America to other prejudices, felt by immigrants including his own ancestors:
Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him: "No Irish Need Apply." Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation's progress because they were Catholic or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums -- untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?
He praised Martin Luther King, and the goal of non-violent social change. He talked about historical and contemporary evils, and issued a call to conscience:
These are different evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfections of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, the defectiveness of our sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows; they mark the limit of our ability to use knowledge for the well-being of our fellow human beings throughout the world. And therefore they call upon common qualities of conscience and indignation, a shared determination to wipe away the unnecessary sufferings of our fellow human beings at home and around the world.
He then made this directly relevant to his audience, the youth of South Africa:
It is these qualities which make of our youth today the only true international community. More than this, I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build. It would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress -- not material welfare as an end in/of itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would all be proud to have built.
He sharpened the message:
"Our answer is the world's hope: It is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.
This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease..."
But by having talked so much about America, he also blunted the criticism that he was urging another country to realize ideals that his own people had not fully met. The rest of his speech instead was about making common cause with everyone working for social and political justice. It was about how to create change:
Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and then the total -- all of these acts -- will be written in the history of this generation.
After noting the examples of the Peace Corps and the Resistance to the Nazis in Europe, he said this, the most-quoted part of the speech:
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each 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 centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
But there was more. In a few words he defined the true Kennedy legacy, the necessary fusion of ideals and realism to create a better future:
"The second danger is that of expediency: of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we must act effectively, we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs -- that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems.
It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief -- forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.
It is this new idealism which is also, I believe, the common heritage of a generation which has learned that while efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, or the streets of Budapest, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis."
Rising to the challenge, in July 1966 the National Union of South African Students came out explicitly against apartheid.
This was June 6, 1966. Two years later to the day--and 42 years ago today, which was also his age--Robert F. Kennedy died from wounds inflicted by an assasin’s bullet two days before. He had just won the California primary for the U.S. presidency in 1968. He would be going to the Democratic convention in Chicago with the most votes, but not yet enough to assure the nomination. Looking tired and a little haunted, he ended his victory speech with the exhortation, "Now on to Chicago, and let’s win there," flashing a peace sign and the Kennedy smile.
But before this exhortation, his last public words that night of June 4, 1966 were these: "We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running."