Robert Francis Kennedy
name Kennedy is synonymous with public service, with answering
the call to improve the lives of all people around the globe.
Robert Kennedy was the attorney general of the United States
from 1961-1964 and senator from 1965-1968. In the tragic
aftermath of his brother President John Kennedy’s assassination,
he was murdered in Los Angeles in 1968 at the Ambassador
always admired the courage of others fighting adversity. Profiles
in Courage, written by President John Kennedy, celebrated
those individuals who represented the best of humanity. Passing
the mantle of champion of human rights, Kerry Kennedy, daughter
of Robert Kennedy, recently published a book, Speak
Truth to Power, celebrating and applauding the lives of 41 brave
men and women that she met in her travels around the world.
November marked the 80th birthday of Robert F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy
answered the call to action to create a more just world
and in the process he influenced generations of social,
political and cultural leaders. His vision was to empower
communities and secure the rights of the individual.
RFK Memorial honored his life and his legacy in Washington
DC recently, with the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Award, presented to Stephen Bradberry, the Lead Organizer
of the New Orleans chapter of ACORN (Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now). Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy,
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Keynote Speaker Senator
Barack Obama (D-IL) spoke about how RFK’s legacy
has impacted America and how the legacy is alive and thriving.
M. Kennedy on the Presentation of the 2005 RFK Human Rights
Award to Stephen Bradberry of New Orleans
very proud of Ethel, Kerry, and everyone else at the Memorial
for their extraordinary leadership and commitment in carrying
on Bobby’s ideals. I know my brother would be very grateful
to all of you for advancing his work so well, and he’d
be especially pleased with this year’s recipient of the
human rights award in his name.
much of his life to social justice in all nations and for all
peoples, and this award was created to honor courageous individuals
fighting for that ideal.
award has recognized human rights heroes from abroad. But this
year, with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina so much in
mind, we turn our sights homeward. No event in modern America
has destroyed so much and uprooted so many in so short a time
as that violent storm, with much of the magnificent City of
New Orleans and the beloved Gulf Coast reduced to ruin.
visited the area soon after the storm and was deeply shocked
to see the devastation. For many of our fellow citizens in
New Orleans and the Gulf Region, there is literally nothing
to return to. Entire communities are completely gone. All
of endless blocks are the concrete slabs where family homes
The violent winds and flood tore away the mask that has long concealed
the silent slavery of poverty in so much of our society.
Katrina showed how long a journey we still have to make to
live up to America’s promise. For a new generation
of Americans who did not live through the civil rights movement
or the Vietnam War or Watergate—Katrina was their American
apocalypse. More than any event in their lifetimes, it revealed
the consequences of our nation’s neglect.
new young leaders like our honoree understand that the darkest
time often comes just before a dawn. On my visit to the Gulf
Coast, I was moved by the caring and courage of ordinary
people stepping up in extraordinary ways to rebuild lives
and communities. Churches, police officers, firefighters,
National Guard members, families, friends, neighbors, strangers—they
came together and became heroes in the wake of the storm.
They saw the face of poverty and homelessness, and responded
instantly by joining the fight against despair.
their credit, some courageous and very dedicated people had
joined that fight long before, even when the storms weren’t arriving and
the cameras weren’t rolling. Among the best of those
who have been fighting the good fight with great courage is
this year’s honoree, Stephen Bradberry of New Orleans.
is the lead organizer for the New Orleans chapter of ACORN,
the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
lived in New Orleans for 18 years. He’s originally from
Chicago, but stayed on in the Crescent City after graduating
from Dillard University in 1992. At Dillard, his eyes were
opened to new depths of poverty. He came face to face with
the plight of people in poverty in the state with the largest
proportion of men and women in the nation living on the minimum
wage or less.
since, he’s been a relentless crusader for social and
economic justice. He battles every day, and with great humility,
to empower the poor of New Orleans and mobilize them to fight
more effectively for themselves.
Hurricane Katrina, he temporarily moved to Baton Rouge, organizing
in shelters, and locating and supporting ACORN members displaced
by the storm. But Stephen kept the faith, and is leading a
new movement to give the low-income community of New Orleans
a genuine voice in the redevelopment of their city. Survivors
I met told me they don’t want veto power over every proposal
to rebuild their region—they just need a voice in the
rebuilding of their own communities, and ACORN is their voice.
name is especially appropriate—Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now. That says it all. Typically, it plants seeds
in communities across America that can grow into mighty oaks
with strong roots and far-reaching branches in the ongoing
struggle for progress, opportunity, and justice. It’s
the nation’s largest community organization of low- and
moderate-income families, with 175,000 member families and
850 neighborhood chapters in 75 cities in our country, Canada,
the Dominican Republic, and Peru.
Kennedy understood the critical importance of local activists
like Stephen in these struggles. “In the fight for social
justice,” Bobby said, “national power can create
and encourage, but local power is determinative.” Stephen
has been that kind of determined leader for ACORN, organizing
the poverty community through marches, demonstrations, media
campaigns, leadership training, door-to-door visits, e-mail,
and the Internet. He’s led New Orleans ACORN into battle
for a living wage and for voting rights—and against lead
poisoning and predatory lending. Now he’s waging a new
battle in support of fair rebuilding after the hurricane.
has had other missions as well. In New Orleans’ Eighth Ward,
he’s worked with the local carpenters union to reduce
exposure to lead poisoning in old homes. It’s characteristic
of ACORN that the local union is offering apprenticeships to
young men and women ages 18 to 24—giving them a priceless
opportunity to learn how to find their way out of poverty.
As the Chinese saying goes, give people a fish, and you’ll
feed them for a day. But teach them to fish, and you’ll
feed them for a lifetime.
also led the most effective voting rights campaign in New Orleans. “A
lot of other organizations have been doing big, flashy events,” he
says, “but we’ve been out there in the neighborhoods
where people are, signing them up door-to-door, at bus stops,
wherever people congregate. Slow and steady wins the race.” Of
the 460,000 residents of Orleans Parish, over 302,000 are registered
to vote in this historic treasure of an American city, including
almost 200,000 African Americans.
ACORN’s defining cause -- and it’s effective. In
November 2004, because of ACORN, 71 percent of voters in Florida
and 68 percent in Nevada approved ballot initiatives to raise
their state’s minimum wage. Similar initiatives are now
underway for next year’s elections in Ohio, Michigan,
Arizona, and Colorado.These campaigns are strong and successful
tributes to the power of the grassroots. They draw people to
the polls because the people know it makes a difference in
their daily lives.
the wake of Katrina, that struggle in New Orleans is especially
important. Before the hurricane, one of every 20 workers
in Louisiana earned the minimum wage or less—almost twice the national
average. A quarter of the population lived in poverty—77
percent higher than the national average.
challenge facing these low-wage workers was aggravated by
harsh decision to suspend the protection of prevailing wage
laws for reconstruction workers in the Gulf Coast—a needless
and appalling insult to suffering workers and their families.
ACORN made its outrage known. Thanks to its efforts, the Administration
admitted the error of its ways and reinstated the long-standing
federal wage protections for these hard-working Americans.
there is much more to do. Stephen sees the living wage as
indispensable in attracting residents back to New Orleans.
As he says, “people
have moved away from this city and have seen that they can
make more money in other places. The simple fact of the matter,” he
says, “is you can’t pay a minimum wage in New Orleans
right now, because there is nobody in the city. So you have
to pay people in order to have them come to work.” In
1968, Bobby spoke about this need, in words that ring even
more true after Katrina.
Perhaps the most invisible of all among the invisible poor are those
in the immigrant neighborhoods and communities of New Orleans.
A century and a half ago, thousands of Irish immigrants gave
their lives digging the New Basin Canal, which linked the
city with Lake Ponchartrain at the time. Lost from public
view today are thousands of contemporary immigrants, especially
from Mexico, Honduras, and Vietnam, who had been living in
the areas hit hardest along the Gulf Coast. Few have sought
help from relief agencies or gone to shelters, for fear they’ll
be deported. Whatever violations of the immigration laws
they may have committed, we can’t wash our hands of
their plight and let their suffering continue.
this disaster reminds us, we’re all part of a family—and we have
a responsibility to help members of our family in need. More
than ever, as we have learned so painfully in recent weeks,
the war on poverty has casualties like any other war—and
so far, we are losing this war.
must respond in ways that are as good and as compassionate
as the American people. We know what must be done. We’re
a stronger country when we’re a fairer country. Inequality
and injustice undermine our economy, our security, our standing
in the world, our future. We need to wage a wiser war on poverty.
That means a broader effort and a new spirit of cooperation
to reduce poverty, a genuine new dedication carried out by
leaders in government at every level, in religion, in industry,
and in the academic community.
is our opportunity and our calling—and it’s our duty—to
get it right. We can rebuild the Gulf Coast in a manner that
lifts people up and gives them a voice. We can reduce and even
eradicate poverty in the nation, and reclaim our moral standing
in the world. Other nations still desperately want to look
to us for moral guidance and leadership, and we cannot fail
Bobby said, “The
future does not belong to those who are content with today,
apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike.
Rather, it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason,
and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great
enterprises of American society.”
believed that we must “learn to find our own advancement
in the search for the advancement of others.”
of us,” he said, “from the wealthiest and most
powerful of men to the weakest and hungriest of children, share
one precious possession: the name ‘American.’”
April 1968, he ended his remarks about the Bedford-Stuyvesant
community in New York City with words that ring especially
true today about Stephen. “We live in a time when the
nation is deeply divided. But you have proven that we need
not remain so. Together we can attack the problems that seem
so overwhelming, and master them. Your example should give
courage to all Americans in the difficult days before us.”
you honor my brother immensely in your mission to make this
a more just and peaceful land. Bobby would be very, very
proud of all you’re doing to carry on his unfinished
work, and to help all those living in even the deepest shadows,
about whom he cared so much.
Senator Barack Obama at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Award Ceremony, Wednesday, November 16, 2005, Washington, DC
I come to this
with tremendous humility. I was only seven when Bobby Kennedy
died. Many of the people in this room knew
him as brother, as husband, as father, as friend.
I knew him
only as an icon. In
that sense, it is a distance I share with most of the people
who now work in this Capitol—many of whom were not even
born when Bobby Kennedy died. But what’s interesting is that if you go throughout
the offices in the Capitol, everywhere you’ll find photographs
of Kennedy, or collections of his speeches, or some other memento
of his life.
Why is this? Why is it that this man who was never
President, who was our Attorney General for only three years,
who was New York’s junior Senator for just three and
a half, still calls to us today? Still inspires our debate with his words,
animates our politics with his ideas, and calls us to make
gentle the life of a world that’s too often coarse and
much has to do with charisma and eloquence – that unique
ability, rare for most but common among Kennedys, to sum up
the hopes and dreams of the most diverse nation on Earth with
a simple phrase or sentence; to inspire even the most apathetic
observers of American life.
of it is his youth—both the time of life and the state
of mind that dared us to hope that even after John was killed;
even after we lost King; there would come a younger, energetic
Kennedy who could make us believe again.
But beyond these qualities, there’s something more.
confines of these walls and the boundaries of this city, it
becomes very easy to play small-ball politics. Somewhere between
the partisan deadlock and the twenty-four hour news cycles,
the contrived talking points and the focus on the sensational
over the substantive, issues of war and poverty, hopelessness
and lawlessness become problems to be managed, not crises to
be solved. They become fodder for the Sunday show scrum, not
places to find genuine consensus and compromise. And so, at
some point, we stop reaching for the possible and resign ourselves
to that which is most probable.
This is what
happens in Washington.
And yet, as this goes on, somewhere another child goes hungry in a neighborhood
just blocks away from one where a family is too full to eat
another bite. Somewhere
another hurricane survivor still searches for a home to return
to or a school for her daughter. Somewhere another twelve-year-old
is gunned down by an assailant who used to be his kindergarten
playmate, and another parent loses their child on the streets
But somewhere, there have also always been people who believe that this
isn’t the way it was supposed to be—that things
should be different in America. People
who believe that while evil and suffering will always exist,
this is a country that has been fueled by small miracles
and boundless dreams—a place where we’re not
afraid to face down the greatest challenges in pursuit of
the greater good; a place where, against all odds, we overcome.
was one of these people.
In a nation
torn by war and divided against itself, he was able to look
us in the eye and tell us that no matter how many cities burned
with violence, no matter how persistent the poverty or the
racism, no matter how far adrift America strayed, hope would
It was an idealism
not based in rigid ideology. Yes,
he believed that government is a force for good—but not
the only force. He distrusted big bureaucracies, and knew that
change erupts from the will of free people in a free society;
that it comes not only from new programs, but new attitudes
The idealism of Robert Kennedy—the unfinished legacy that calls
us still—is a fundamental belief in the continued perfection
of American ideals.
a belief that says if this nation was truly founded on the
principles of freedom and equality, it could not sit idly by
while millions were shackled because of the color of their
skin. That if we are to shine as a beacon of hope to the rest
of the world, we must be respected not just for the might of
our military, but for the reach of our ideals. That if this
is a land where destiny is not determined by birth or circumstance,
we have a duty to ensure that the child of a millionaire and
the child of a welfare mom have the same chance in life. That
if out of many, we are truly one, then we must not limit ourselves
to the pursuit of selfish gain, but that which will help all
Americans rise together.
have not always lived up to these ideals and we may fail
again in the future, but this legacy calls on us to try.
And the reason it does—the reason we still hear the echo of not only
Bobby’s words, but John’s and King’s and
Roosevelt’s and Lincoln’s before him—is because
they stand in such stark contrast to the place in which we
find ourselves today.
greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative,
on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended
on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that
everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and
everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.
Kennedy reminded us of this. He reminds us still. He reminds
us that we don’t need to wait for a hurricane to know that Third
World living conditions in the middle of an American city make
us all poorer. We don’t have to accept the diminishment
of the American Dream in this country now, or ever.
If he were
here today, I think it would be hard to place Robert F. Kennedy
into any of the categories that so often constrain us politically.
He was a fervent anti-communist but knew diplomacy was our
way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sought to wage the
war on poverty but with local partnerships and community activism.
He was at once both hard-headed and big-hearted.
And yet, his
was not a centrism in the sense of finding a middle road or
a certain point on the ideological spectrum. His
was a politics that, at its heart, was deeply moral—based
on the notion that in this world, there is right and there
is wrong, and it’s our job to organize our laws and our
lives around recognizing the difference.
RFK made his famous trip to the Mississippi Delta with Charles
Evers in 1967, the story is often told about the destitute
they encountered as they walked from shack to shack. As they
walk into one with hardly a ceiling and a floor full of holes,
Kennedy sees a small child with a swollen stomach sitting
in the corner. He tries and tries to talk to this child again
and again, but he gets no response, no movement, not even
a look of awareness. Just a blank stare from cold, wide eyes
so battered by poverty that they’re barely alive.
at that point we’re told that Kennedy begins to cry. And he turns
to Evers and asks “How can a country like this allow
it?” and Evers responds “Maybe they just don’t
Kennedy spent his life making sure that we knew—not
only to wake us from indifference and face us with the darkness
we let slip into our own backyard, but to bring us the good
news that we have it within our power to change all this;
to write our own destiny. Because we are a people of hope. Because
we are Americans.
This is the good news we still hear all these years later—the message
that still points us down the road that Bobby Kennedy never
finished traveling. It’s
a road I hope our politics and our country begin to take
in the months and years to come.#
honor of RFK’s 80th Birthday this November, the Robert
F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and Guggenheim
will be offering Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award
Winning film Robert Kennedy Remembered as a special gift
for donating to the Center for Human Rights through the new
Shop Site. You can join the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in
supporting RFK’s vision and in fighting to secure human
rights across the globe. http://en.groundspring.org/EmailNow