Here in Massachusetts, I love it when when people proudly come up to me and say, “I was with Jack Kennedy in 1960” or “I was with Teddy Kennedy in ’94.” The energy and passion hasn’t faded in their voices one bit – and it’s infectious.
But there’s something different about the way people say: “I was with Bobby in 1968.” Often it comes in a whisper. Some choke back tears. You can still see the hope – and the pain – in their eyes.
It always hits me like a punch in the gut.
Robert Kennedy’s life – and his brief, tragic campaign in 1968 – has had an enduring impact on so many generations of Americans. The reason, I think, is because Bobby had the courage to challenge a divided nation to face up to its own failings. To challenge a divided nation to acknowledge their own contributions to our nations’ problems. To challenge us to step back from the stale, cheap politics of the moment. To challenge us to do better by each other.
Bobby spoke about some of the issues that brought a lot of us to the fight over the past half century. Good jobs. Affordable housing. Investments in education.
But he also spoke at a moment when our people seemed divided beyond repair. With the credibility of our government in doubt, with neighbor pitted against neighbor, and our politics dominated by anger and resentment, America itself seemed to be falling apart at the seams.
[T]he essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer – not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.
History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Things are different now, but a lot of the anxiety that swept through the country in 1968 echoes the anxiety of today. The anxiety felt by millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but feel the opportunity slipping away from themselves and their children. The anxiety felt by African American and Latino families that those opportunities never truly existed to begin with.
Half a century later, we face another moment of crisis – a crisis in our government, a crisis in our politics, and, indeed, a crisis in democracy itself.
You see it in the way this administration is trampling on the laws and traditions that are supposed to keep the most powerful in our country accountable to the people.
You see it in the cesspool of money and power that is our nation’s capital – those same billionaires and giant corporations gobbling down their huge new tax cuts, then spending millions of dollars on Super PAC ads and lobbyists to keep the game going.
You even see it in the way some politicians are working to rig our elections: gerrymandering and voter ID laws and Citizens United – it’s all designed to make sure we, the people, can’t hold them accountable.
When Bobby Kennedy was killed 50 years ago today, the promise of a different America – a better America – seemed to vanish. America continued down a dangerous road where the rich got richer, and everyone else got left behind. We became a country that said, “I got mine, the rest of you are on your own.”
But that promise isn’t gone – not by a long shot. It’s not gone in the eyes of the people I meet who remember that campaign in 1968. It’s not gone in the children who pass by his photo with his big brother John at the Kennedy Library here in Boston. And it’s not gone in the millions of people – young and old, rich and poor, black, white, brown – who still believe that we can build a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Our democracy is fractured in deep and terrible ways. The darkness may seem all-encompassing. But I still believe in Bobby Kennedy’s tiny ripple of hope. I believe that history is shaped from numberless diverse acts of courage. And I believe that all of us together will write the history of this generation – and in doing so, continue to write the legacy of Bobby Kennedy for generations to come.