Once upon a time, long, long, long ago, a presidential candidate could be heard uttering these words:
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
That was Bobby Kennedy, a terribly imperfect man and political candidate, speaking at the Cleveland City Club the day after Martin Luther King was executed. You and I together could draw up a lengthy laundry list of the sins committed by Bobby Kennedy in his personal and public lives. He, precisely like you and me, fell to temptation, rage, ideology, privilege, moral superiority, sexism, and so many other seductions until the day he died barely two months after delivering this speech. His greatest sin, though, was simply being a human being. Yet, as a human, he was capable of greatness. At times he was lucid and courageous enough to say things that, whether read or heard, made hearts soar. Mine certainly soared when I read this just now.
My friend and sister Zaineb Istrabadi pointed out a snippet from the speech this AM. In researching the time and place in which he delivered these words, I came upon the entirety of it. I was blown away. I hope you’ve been, too.
And now I have to resist a certain creeping sense of discouragement. No one on the public stage today can speak so brilliantly and so forcefully. No one would dare. No one would want to be so blatantly ignored or, worse, ridiculed for speaking in such lofty language of such noble concepts, as anyone who delivered this speech in 2016 surely would be.