As a Senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy visited underprivileged communities in the United States and abroad. His celebrity assured a press entourage that reported on the horrible living conditions Kennedy witnessed. On June 6, 1966, Kennedy addressed a crowd at the University of Capetown, South Africa, during that country’s imposition of apartheid, an official policy of racial segregation imposed by the state. Kennedy’s speech, excerpted below, emphasized an inclusiveness that embraced all races and classes, and made a special appeal to youth.
...This is a Day of Affirmation — a celebration of liberty. We stand here in the name of freedom.
At the heart of that western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, all groups and states, exist for that person’s benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any western society….
...For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, on social class or race — discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and to the command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him, “No Irish Need Apply.” Two generations later, President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic, or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums — untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?...
...We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people — before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous — although it is. Not because the laws of God command it — although they do. Not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do…
...In a few hours, the plane that brought me to this country crossed over oceans and countries which have been a crucible of human history. In minutes we traced migrations of men over thousands of years; seconds, the briefest glimpse, and we passed battlefields on which millions of men once struggled and died. We could see no national boundaries, no vast gulfs or high walls dividing people from people; only nature and the works of man — homes and factories and farms — everywhere reflecting man’s common effort to enrich his life. Everywhere new technology and communications brings men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably become the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of differences which is at the root of injustice and hate and war. Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ends at river’s shore, his common humanity is enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town or his views and the color of his skin.
It is your job, the task of the young people in this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man…
...There is, said an Italian philosopher, nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation and the road is strewn with many dangers.
First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man — or one woman — can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation. A young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth. And a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. Give me a place to stand, said Archimedes, and I will move the world. These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation… It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus 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, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance…
...The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people across the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspiration and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities — no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems… Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly…
...A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. 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 the world which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us At the Olympic Games it is not the finest or the strongest men who are crowned, but those who enter the lists… so too in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize. I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.
For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort…
For the full text of Robert Kennedy’s speech, along with an audio recording, visit the Web site of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum at http://www.jfklibrary.org
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