Posts Tagged ‘Robert F. Kennedy’

The Day I Met Robert F. Kennedy

May 16, 2010 2 comments

By Joe Santorsa (Marnus3)

I grew up in a household deeply rooted in the tradition of Democratic politics. Discussions of the political landscape were as common at the breakfast table as cereal and milk. My father was a local businessman and my mother was a democratic committeewoman since the days of Roosevelt. She loved to tell the story of when working as a waitress at a local hotel, she had to serve a group of Republicans at a dinner. All night she listened to them belittle the suffering the depression had brought to average Americans. After an evening of hearing the vile contempt with which these people held her own people, she threw to the floor the dinners she was serving and stormed out, vowing to do whatever she could to prevent them from ever having power over her.

In March of 1964 the bitterness of the previous November still permeated our home like a dark fog. My parents had been mourning the death of President Kennedy as if they had lost a brother. But on one March day there was a ray of hope shining through the fog, because Robert Kennedy would be in town addressing the annual “Irish Sons of St. Patrick” dinner. Scranton was buzzing with excitement because for one day in that long, sad winter, something good was about to happen.

Bobby Kennedy was to be the overnight guest of a friend of my parents, a local county judge. The judge was a very generous man with a large Irish Catholic family, much like the Kennedys’. To my good fortune, he invited a small number of friends, including my parents and me, to his home to meet Bobby. It would have to be brief, but the opportunity to be in his company for just a few seconds was enough for me.

Now, you will be hard pressed to find a bigger Beatles fan than me, but I must admit that on this day, if given a choice between meeting the Beatles or Bobby Kennedy, the Beatles would have lost. Yes, even at the age of 14, I was hopelessly hooked on politics. As we drove over to the judge’s house, I went over in my mind what clever things to say to this hero of mine. It was fruitless. I decided to ad lib.

We were greeted at the door by the judge’s wife and brought into the living room. There he was, sitting like anyone else, but with the air of someone you knew was special. As he got up, we were introduced one by one. When he reached out to shake my hand, all my preparation evaporated as my mind went blank. I swear I almost fainted. I don’t even remember what I said or what he replied. It was an awe stricken moment that flashed before me and then was over. But I will always remember his eyes, clear and sincere and the softness of his handshake. I remember my father telling Bobby that he, too, had lost a brother in the war to a kamikaze attack. Bobby thanked him for his service and his family’s sacrifice, and my mother for her dedication to the party and his brother. And that quickly it was over. In that fraction of a lifetime, my life was touched by greatness. I was told that his speech that night was so moving, that the audience was in tears.

Some days later we were told by the judge’s wife that Bobby Kennedy, in his haste to leave, left his overcoat on the rack in their foyer. They offered to ship it to him but he told them he would pick it up on his next trip to Scranton. They kept it as a treasure.

Four years later, on June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California presidential primary. By then I was in college, and the war in Vietnam was raging. I was dedicated to ending the war and Bobby Kennedy was my hope, my candidate. I stayed up with friends until after 3:00 AM to hear his victory speech and the famous words “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there”. Then came the chaos, and I never got to sleep that night, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I hoped against all odds that he would somehow survive, but it was not to be. Robert Kennedy died the next day. All that remained was a coat that would never be retrieved, the memory of a warm handshake on a cold March day, and the promise of peace that would not be fulfilled. I thought at that moment I would never dream again.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

RFK’s Finest Hour

May 9, 2010 4 comments


Robert Kennedy found himself some 20,000 feet above the earth just minutes after learning that down below, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King had been shot. All Bobby knew, as he flew to Indianapolis to speak at a rally in a poor black neighborhood, was that King was in critical condition. His mind was already, no doubt, flashing back to Dallas and his own brother’s fate. Now what?

Kennedy’s advisors were divided. Some felt he should cancel his appearance and just issue a statement, while others thought he should go to the event.

Two of RFK’s black staffers, John Lewis (now Rep. D – GA) and Earl Graves Jr., were already at the site of the rally and believed that most of the people there didn’t even know King had been killed. Lewis felt that Bobby had to go, saying, “You can’t have a crowd like this, and something like this happens, and send them home without saying anything at all. Kennedy has to speak, for his sake and for the sake of these people.”

Upon landing, RFK was given the news that Martin Luther King was dead. “Oh God, “ Kennedy replied, “When is this violence going to stop?”

While still on the plane, Robert Kennedy made up his mind he would go. Soon after getting out of the plane, the Chief of Police of Indianapolis implored Kennedy to call off the rally, saying it was too dangerous for him to go, and that riots were sure to break out.

The crowd of about 3000 waiting for Robert Kennedy at Seventeenth and Broadway was a volatile mix. Many of the people had got there early and hadn’t yet heard of King’s death; the other group of people there were those who had jammed into the streets after learning the news. Some of these were Ten Percenters, a young black militant group who hoped to start a riot or worse. There were only a small amount of whites in the audience, and most of them were standing near the flat bed truck that would function as a speaking platform for RFK’s speech—if he lived to give it.

Robert Kennedy waded into this swirling cauldron and proceeded to give the finest address of his life. It wasn’t really a speech at all, it was more of a prayer – an updated Gettysburg Address, for a country just as divided. He very likely saved his own life along with countless others that drizzly evening. What makes this speech even more remarkable is that RFK didn’t use a prepared text. He spoke from his heart for nearly seven minutes without notes, or even anything written on his hand.

From “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America, by Thurston Clarke: “When Kennedy finished, some in the crowd behaved as if he had just delivered a campaign speech. They rushed the platform, cheering and reaching for him.  But most stood still, weeping and stunned into silence. They disbursed quietly and within minutes the park had emptied. A month later, one of the militant Ten Percenters told researchers Karl Anatol and John Dittner of Purdue University, “We went there for trouble after he {Kennedy} spoke. We couldn’t get nowhere.” Another militant told them, “After he spoke, we realized the sensible way was not to kill him the way {they} killed his brother.” Another claimed that Kennedy’s speech had saved Indianapolis from violence, saying, “The black power guys didn’t get no place after the man speak.”

Had Kennedy skipped the rally, or delivered a less successful speech, there would have been a riot at Seventeenth and Broadway that evening.  Anatol and Dittner speculated that “a racially mixed, congested crowd would have erupted into physical conflict between black and white with lives being lost and women and children caught in the melee. Furthermore, if a riot had taken place, a national television audience would have been witness to its commencement. The prospect of chain reactions in other areas cannot be over-ruled.”

During the next twenty-four hours, riots broke out in 119 American cities, leaving fourty-six dead, twenty-five hundred injured and destruction unmatched since the Civil War. But in Indianapolis, where race relations were notoriously tense, no guns were fired or Molotov cocktails thrown, and it was the only major American city to escape the violence. Three decades later, former Mayor {and now U.S. Senator} Richard Lugar would call Kennedy’s appearance at the rally “a turning point” for his city.”

Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even 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.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

(Interrupted by applause)

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Why can’t people talk this way anymore?

As we all know, two months later, Robert Kennedy himself would be dead.  In 1988 writer Jack Newfield called RFK’s assassination “a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes.”


Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

If You Can’t Count It, It Doesn’t Count

April 12, 2010 3 comments

A Moment In Time With RFK

Here in America, one of our tragic flaws is that we measure everything in dollars and cents. If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. This problem was never addressed more eloquently than when Robert Kennedy spoke the following words at, of all places, the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968.

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Can you imagine these words coming from the lips of any politician today?

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: