What really drew me to RFK were his human qualities, including his literacy and eloquence—he could quote easily from Shakespeare and Camus; Robert Frost and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Goethe and Archimedes—and his “experiencing nature,” which allowed him to see things in a new light and therefore learn and grow. “He was always in the process of becoming,” in the words of The New Yorker.
Suffering didn’t break or embitter him, but rather deepened him; it made him a more vulnerable and empathetic person. A white man born into wealth and privilege, by the end of his life, Kennedy became a champion of people of color and the underclass. Their pain became, to some degree at least, his pain.
I’ve found myself thinking more and more about Bobby Kennedy, because of the deepening divisions, including the deepening racial divisions, in our nation. Kennedy was a central political figure through much of the 1960s, a turbulent, angry, and violent time. What characterized America then in many ways characterizes America now. Was there something about Robert Kennedy’s habits of mind and heart, his disposition, that we could use now?
Kennedy had an authentic interest in national dialogue, in hearing from and speaking with those who shared very different views than he did. In the first week of his 1968 campaign, Kennedy delivered remarks on the campus of the University of Alabama—the same college to which, less than five years earlier, Kennedy, as attorney general, had dispatched federal marshals to ensure that two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, could enroll over the objections of Governor George Wallace, who literally stood in the doorway to block their entrance.
In a speech to 9,000 students, Kennedy said, “I have come here because our great nation is troubled, divided as never before in our history; divided by a difficult, costly war abroad and by bitter, destructive crisis at home; divided by our age, by our beliefs, by the color of our skin. I have come here because I seek to join with you in building a better country and a united country. And I come to Alabama because I need your help.”
Kennedy went on to say, “This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were when it began. We have to begin to put our country together again. So I believe that any who seek high office this year must go before all Americans: not just those who agree with them, but also those who disagree; recognizing that it is not just our supporters, not just those who vote for us, but all Americans, who we must lead in the difficult years ahead. And that is why I have come, at the outset of my campaign, not to New York or Chicago or Boston, but here to Alabama.”
Read: What if Robert F. Kennedy had become president?
He concluded his remarks this way: “For history has placed us all, northerner and southerner, black and white, within a common border and under a common law. All of us, from the wealthiest and most powerful of men to the weakest and hungriest of children, share one precious possession: the name American. So I come to Alabama to ask you to help in the task of national reconciliation.”