“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 that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance” – Robert Francis Kennedy
Once I was asked during an interview, “What one book changed your way of thinking?”
I find myself living in the midst of two very different worlds. One is the actual, physical world of everyday existence, struggles, and hope of those we serve at Eblen Charities as we reach out to help those who call upon us in their times of need.
The second world is that of ideas, thoughts, and books. I learned a love of reading, history, and biography from my grandparents who took me in when I was seven, Through this world I learned to question, search, think, and wonder.
My answer to the question was, “Such a Vision of the Street” an early but definitive biography of Mother Teresa, but even before that I recalled that there was an earlier book that I read that helped sent me on the path that I find myself walking still.
This book cost me sixty-cents cover and was ninety-six pages with nearly half of them photos. The book was titled ‘RFK 1925-1968’ by James Hudson. It was this little book that helped change my mind about what was important.
As I am writing this, it is early in the morning of June 5th, 2018- fifty years to the day the Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel as he was leaving through the back way after giving a victory speech following his winning the California Democratic Presidential Primary.
But what is being remembered today is not the assassination of the second of the Kennedy brothers serving our country in the span of less than five years. It is not about a controversial politician trying to gain the most powerful position in the world, but the story of a man who seemed to have it all, money, prestige, power, and an easy life ahead, but set a great deal of that aside and used what he had been given to benefit the lives of others.
Born the seventh of nine children to one of the most prominent families in the country, Bobby, the “runt of the litter” as he was learned to compete with his older brothers and sisters in a family that admired and demanded toughness and winning above all other traits.
But all of that changed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. He saw how lives and all of history could change in the time it takes to pull a trigger.
He saw the role he was to play change from ruthlessness Attorney General to a life of unmatched dedicated selfless service. Leaving his post in the Justice Department, Bobby ran for and won a senate seat in New York.
It was there on the streets in New York, not in his newly acquired senate offices, that he was able to turn his deep sadness into an even deeper devotion. He asked reporters to show him the worst sections of New York and toured the tenements and slums. He saw, as he later did on his “poverty tour” into the deepest part of eastern Kentucky and rural Mississippi, an existence that he never dreamed of and one that would never leave his thoughts or his heart.
He didn’t talk a lot – he asked questions and he found another America that he didn’t know existed – an alien land within our own borders.
One mother told him of how the rats would come into her apartment at night and bite her children’s toes. She would hear them scream and then rush into their room to chase the rats away. This wasn’t just a isolated incident, it was a nightly occurrence and as much pleading as she did to her landlord, her cries feel on deaf ears. Bobby called the landlord. As he requested the landlord immediate exterminate the rats from his buildings, the astonished tenement owner asked. “You mean Bobby Kennedy is interested in Mrs. Smith’s children?” The next day, an exterminator appeared and the rats were gone.
He introduced and sponsored bills to increase the minimum wage, worked to improve schools, education, and housing. He was one of the first voices to call an end to apartheid. All of this in the midst of the late sixties and the greatest domestic crisis in our country since the Civil War – the battle for civil rights and it was Bobby that stood before hundreds of African Americans in downtown Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 and sadly announced to them that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis by a white assailant.
He reminded the stunned crowd that his brother and also shot and killed by a white man and he asked them to remember Dr. King and what he would have wanted in peaceful protest. Indianapolis was the only major city in the United States that did not erupt in violence that night. Bobby brought a new, or maybe a renewed spirit to the battle weary nation. He brought passion back to the forefront and whether he was loved or reviled he was not ignored.
His presidential campaign lasted a mere 85 days. He didn’t decide to run until very late when most primaries had already been decided. On June 5th, he won the California Primary and a few minutes after his victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel and his closing remarks of “On to Chicago and let’s win there”, he was fatally shot in the pantry of the kitchen as he was leaving and stopping to talk with the kitchen workers. He died the next morning at 1:44 am at Good Samaritans Hospital. He was 42 years old.
The Ambassador Hotel has long been gone and in it’s place stands the Robert F Kennedy Community Schools which consists of six separate pilot and innovative schools ranging in grades from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The pantry and kitchen in which Bobby was fatally shot is now the library that serves more than 2,400 students.
Words are difficult to come by, even after five decades, to describe Robert Kennedy. But I believe that his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, said it better than anyone else ever could in his eulogy to his brother.
“This is the way he lived. My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it”.”
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”’
If only those words could be said about us all.