RFK: “A tiny ripple of hope…”

By Beryl Wajsman on June 12, 2008

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

~ Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon”

one of RFK’s favorite quotes


Last week we commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He was shot on June 5th, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as he was celebrating the California primary victory that would have led him to the Democratic Presidential nomination. He died the next day. For many of us who were coming to political maturity in that turbulent time hope seemed to die with him.

It has been said that my generation was the first to realize a terrible truth before any of us even turned twenty. That truth was that the best people we would ever see in public life had     their heads blown off. Kennedy, King, Kennedy.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, people around the continent said “We still have Bobby.” After Bobby was killed, those of us who remained engaged in public life comforted ourselves with Bobby’s hope.

That hope was embodied in many of RFK’s words, but never more so than what he said in the black township of Soweto in South Africa in 1965. “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

But we came to learn that hope, like courage, rests not on the shoulders of any one man but lives in the hearts of all he inspired. All we need is the resolve to remember, and to carry on.

To remember the RFK who dragged a Senate committee to the Mississippi Delta and poignantly touched the stomach and cheek of a starving black child and then glared into a television camera and icily declared “This is unacceptable in America!” To remember another Senate panel he took to California to help Cesar Chavez’ embattled grape workers’ union withstand crackdowns from redneck sheriffs whom Kennedy ordered to “Re-read the Constitution of the United States!” To remember how he brought big business and big labor together to rejuvenate the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant. To remember the hope that he engendered from the hungry of South America to the imprisoned of Africa.

When one reflects on the killing of Bobby one remembers a story that took place in the White House the day John Kennedy was killed. The writer Mary McGrory said on that day that “…we shall never smile again.” Then Presidential assistant  Daniel Patrick Moynihan answered “No Mary, we will smile again, but we’ll never be young again.” Many of us grew up very quickly that bloody spring.

So many today find it fashionable to question what RFK really did in his short public life. Others, members of the salon liberal set Kennedy so disdained, relish condemning him because of his supposed ruthlessness and his alliances with old-time party bosses. But that was the point of Bobby. As religious a man as he was, he hated false piety. And he didn’t endorse litmus tests of purity in politics. His bottom line was who could help him meet the needs of the people. That endeavour, and that endeavour alone, was the redemptive crusade of public life. RFK made us see possibilities in ourselves that we thought unimaginable. If the line he loved from Bernard Shaw meant anything it meant that. “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?”

Robert Kennedy held out an authentic vision of a generosity of spirit that could realize the ancient dream of the brotherhood of man. He challenged us to vigorous service and sacrifice in our daily lives. And most of all, he dared us to be brave.

Perhaps that is the greatest quality of leadership. To make people bolder, braver, better than they ever thought possible. And he did it by giving people the audacity to hope. It was his greatest legacy.

                At no time since his murder has the world been in need of such hope and such courage. It is for that reason as much as any perhaps, that his legacy resonates with us still. For we live in a time when too many of our leaders run between the raindrops. They don’t dare to care. And they can no longer tell right from wrong. It is a time of the feckless and the fearful. It is a time of obsequious appeasement of villainy.

Robert Kennedy brought not only courage but clarity to public life. He dared to care. He sailed into the rainstorms. He knew right from wrong. And he knew it because of the simplicity of his public testament that his brother Sen. Edward Kennedy explained so well in his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “My brother,” he said, “need not be idealized nor made greater in death than he was in life. He should be remembered as a man who saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw injustice and tried to stop it; saw want and tried to meet it.”

On this sad week there could be no more fitting tribute to Robert Francis Kennedy’s legacy than to remember those words of his brother. And few more important lessons for our own national will.


This commentary was originally published in The Suburban.


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