As a 20 year-old in the spring of 1968 I experienced my first stirrings of political activism inspired by the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy. Because of Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights and to solving problems of economic inequality, I began campaigning for him at my college. As a young idealist, I hoped to be a part of the causes he championed knowing now that I, too, could make a difference.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
While in college, I wrote Senator Kennedy on the issue of apartheid in South Africa. He replied in the letter below.
Robert Kennedy spoke about race relations in a broadcast to over sixty countries via the Voice of America radio network. As reported at the time, Kennedy said, “There’s no question that in the next thirty or forty years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time.” Kennedy acknowledged the imperfections of equal rights in the United States but said that everything pointed to continued progress.
But his life ended on June 6, 1968. I had to view his funeral train as it passed through the town of Prospect Park. I wrote this journal entry:
The dirt path, surrounded by a sea of high weeds and brambles, was steep so I had to walk carefully as I climbed the embankment. A small crowd had already gathered at the platform. I stood silently by the railings for a short while when I heard the train whistle. As I gazed at the train in the distance, I wondered, “How does one give a meaningful farewell?” The train rapidly approached, and in a few seconds the engine passed. Car after car sped by, a strong wind seemed to pull me closer. I turned quickly when the last car passed and on the platform stood a figure, Robert’s brother, Ted, slowing waving to the responding crowd. I raised my hand, waived and smiled – for in that moment I thought hope would live on.
President-Elect Obama’s Inauguration Day, January 17, 2009
The same inspiration that I drew from Robert Kenney compelled me to see the Obama train. The logistics made the planning difficult. Because of intense security, timetables were vague, there were reports that people would be kept 150 feet from the track, platforms were closed. When I started out to find a location to stand, the temperature was 10 degrees. The Chester station was open, but within minutes we were chased off the platform by men in dark coats accompanied by large dogs. Luckily my friend, Frances, who grew up in Chester, knew of another location off of a back neighborhood street where we might stand. When we arrived at the overpass, people were beginning to gather at the embankment. People sang, young people screamed, most tried to keep moving in the cold. We didn’t have to wait too long before the train passed. Obama’s vintage rail car, known as Georgia 300, was tacked onto the back of a 10-car train. In just seconds, the waiving figure on the back of the train passed us.
Barack Obama spoke in Philadelphia, just minutes before, “Let’s make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning and the hope for the future.” I knew why I was standing alongside the train tracks forty years later.
Update: RFK in the Land of Apartheid In August 2011 PBS aired a documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope. This film documents the story of Bobby Kennedy’s visit to South Africa in 1966, a time when apartheid was at its worst. PBS stations may run the program again. You Tube has an introduction here. The quote under the first paragraph above is from his historic “Day of Affirmation Speech” at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966, and considered one of the most significant speeches of the 20th century.