Robert F. Kennedy (1925 – 1968) came of age during times of great social and political change in America. His sensibilities were not shaped by the Depression or World War II but by the national traumas of the Cuban missile crisis, Birmingham, Dallas, and Viet Nam. “Most people,” journalist Anthony Lewis has written, “acquire certainties as they grow older; he lost his. He changed — he grew — more than anyone I have known.”
Robert Kennedy was an energetic and passionate human being born into a wealthy and influential family who went on to accomplish even more than even he could imagine. He achieved national recognition as Attorney General, U.S. Senator from New York, and Presidential candidate. His character was tested by the major domestic and foreign policy issues of his time.
From Montgomery to Saigon, from the Cuban missile crisis to decisions about sending troops into Latin America, from corruption in the Labor Unions to the unrestrained clout of the FBI, from the “New Frontier” to “The Great Society,” Robert Kennedy squared off with such complicated issues as racism in America, the use of military force abroad, the abuse of power in high places, and the legitimacy of grand social programs originating from Washington.
Robert Kennedy has been described in many ways; below are a few of them. Pick one or two to explore in terms of your own participation in history.
A Representative Man
“Robert Kennedy’s relationship to his age makes him, I believe, a ‘representative man’ in Emerson’s phrase — one who embodies the consciousness of an epoch, who perceives things in fresh lights and new connections, who exhibits unsuspected possibilities of purpose and action to his contemporaries,” historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. stated. Reflect upon these aspects of Robert Kennedy’s character and actions. Then think up ways you can begin, like him, to ride the surf of change to serve the common good.
A Wisdom Keeper
After Robert Kennedy had finished reading a large anthology of Western literature, someone asked him what he had gotten out of it. “I like the poet . . . the delicate Parisian one, Gerard de Nerval. He walked a lobster on a leash. People in the street said, ‘What’s your lobster doing out here on a leash?’ Nerval said, ‘He doesn’t bark and he knows the secrets of the deep.’ ” What bits and pieces of wisdom have you shared with others?
A Mentor of Moral Courage
“Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change,” Robert Kennedy wrote. Who are your mentors of moral courage and what have you learned from them about putting the spiritual practice of transformation into effect in your daily life?
One Who Could Move From World to World
In his 1968 campaign, Robert Kennedy took up the banners of blacks, migrant workers, Chicanos, Native Americans, and students. Indian leader Vine Deloria, Jr., later said of him: “He was a man who could move from world to world and never be a stranger anywhere.” Take a measure of your spiritual practices of hospitality and openness and then make plans to expand and intensify both.
An Inspiration to Youth
Robert Kennedy once defined youth as “a temper of will, quality of imagination, performance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.” Which of these character qualities will best serve the youth of today and of the next generations?
An Unorthodox Man
“The great and invigorating influences of American life have been the unorthodox,” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote. “The people who challenge an existing institution or way of life, or say or do things that make people think.” What unorthodox individuals have shaken you to the core and sent you on your way as an activist of change?