I am reading an excellent biography by Arthur Schlesinger, “Robert F. Kennedy and his Times: Volume I.” RFK is one of my heroes. There are a lot of reasons to like RFK: his ideas, his passion for justice, and his commitment to equal opportunity for all. There’s also a lot of reasons not to like RFK. Especially early in his career, he was an opportunist, political hatchet man, serving as special counsel to Joe McCarthy (yes that one), and was extremely slow to see what was truly happening on civil rights in the South. He and his brother acted only after there were forced to by burning buses, and chaos in the streets. Like all of us, RFK was flawed: full of contradictions, mixed motives, and blind to his own privilege.
His political awakening late in his career is what makes him remarkable to me. Especially in the two years before he died, he began to truly see what was happening in this country: its racism, its economic polarization, and its refusal to acknowledge its own painful periods of injustice… Triangle Shirt, Ludlow, Jim Crow… He was not the first to see these issues nor will he be the last, but for me it is how he addressed these issues. He began to actually go into the communities that he sought to reach out to: he went to the grape fields in Central California, the Inner City, and to rural areas completely left out of our economic system.
When he went to these communities, sometimes he was celebrated. Other times, he was excoriated: his motives were questioned; his failure to address these issues earlier in his life; and his privilege was mocked. Who was he to addressed any of these issues? What business did he have to stand in solidarity with field workers, or union organizers? Rather than deny, or be defensive about these accusations, he acknowledged them. He stood silent while the rhetorical arrows flew. He owned it because he viewed that suffering as a small price to pay to follow his conscience, and to make recompense for his past indifference.
He recognized that he could not make the world a better place until he acknowledged his own flaws, his prejudices, and his failures. He could not possibly denounce others while refusing to recognize his own flaws. He was an idealist grounded in reality…
I think we could all learn from RFK… Our own community seems to be stuck in endless, toxic polemics, each side inveighing against the other while refusing to acknowledge even the smallest possibility that they could be wrong, or that maybe, just maybe, they share more in common than what they recognize. Participants seem more interested in establishing their own moral superiority than in addressing the underlying issue. I understand, of course, that some of this comes with the territory. It’s just politics after all.
Nastiness has been, is and will forever be a part of the any political process, but I don’t think we have to accept it.
We can call it out when it happens.
We can refuse to be persuaded by it.
We can support others who are subject to it.
We can vote against anyone who uses it, or refuses to disavow it.
RFK suffered throughout his life. He lost three siblings in violent deaths. His career ambitions were always overshadowed by others. He never really reached his ultimate goal, but yet, in spite of that, he had a kind of serenity in knowing that he finally connected his heart with his politics. They were ALIGNED.
Two months before he was assassinated, RFK announced the death of Martin Luther King Jr in Indianapolis. I came across that speach while searching out RFK speeches after reading the biography. I had heard the speech before, but it really has new meaning in these perilous times in which we live. He concluded by quoting his favorite poet:
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, ‘And even in our sleep,pain which cannot forgetfalls 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 love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice to those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
That speech literally took my breath away. Watch it, and the speech MLK gave the night before. None of us truly know how much time we have, but we can certainly choose what we focus upon in the time that we have left. And I am not going to waste one second of it mired in vituperative diatribes on FB, or worrying about what those, who are mired in cynicism and sarcasm, have to say about me, or kindred spirits acting to make this community a more just and inclusive place to live.
In RFK’s words, we must demonstrate “love and wisdom and compassion toward on another,” and embrace a “feeling of justice to those who suffer,” even if means that we are the ones who suffer. It is the price of admission to serve, and it is a price worth paying…
(Source: Facebook Post)