The man who would be president
In June 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy (RFK) visited South Africa and delivered a speech at the University of Cape Town on the occasion of the annual Day of Affirmation organized by the National Union of South African Students. RFK’s “Day of Affirmation” speech was uplifting, inspiring and emboldening especially considered against the backdrop of the trial and conviction of Nelson Mandela and 10 other African National Congress leaders two years earlier (audio here). Facing the death penalty in the Rivonia trial in 1964, Mandela defiantly declared: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” In May 1968, RFK spoke to the Voice of America and predicted that “in the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother [President John Kennedy] has…” A month later, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet after he won the California presidential primary.
RFK’s Cape Town speech was prescient, prophetic and infused with youthful idealism. His message sought to mobilize and engage youth in South Africa and throughout the world. He spoke of youth as the “only true international community”. He spoke of a “new idealism” and urged young people to stand up for their ideals. He vigorously defended the individual’s right to free speech and religion and the right of the free press. He talked about how to create change, which he said comes “from numberless diverse acts of courage” taken when “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…” RFK’s speech was for the ages and generations yet unborn.
During his visit, RFK challenged white South African university students. He asked them why blacks weren’t allowed to vote or to worship in their churches. “What the hell would you do if you found out that God is black?”, he challenged one student. When a white student asserted that blacks were too uncivilized to be given political power, RFK shot back: “It was not the black man in Africa who invented and used poison gas and the atomic bomb, who sent six million men and women and children to the gas ovens, and used their bodies as fertilizer.” RFK went to Soweto, despite the strong disapproval of the Apartheid government and without a security detail, and spoke to ordinary people. On one occasion, he spoke to a large group of black South Africans from the rooftop of his car (see picture above). He sang “We Shall Overcome” with the people everywhere he went in South Africa.
I present excerpts of RFK’s speech because I believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” RFK stood with young black and white men and women in the darkest and bleakest days of Apartheid and urged them to send out “tiny ripples of hope”. He believed in the power and promise of young people. He saw them as the only true revolutionaries. He saw them as the fountainhead of hope for humanity.
The great human rights activist, singer and entertainer Harry Belafonte – the man who transported the first planeload of aid to Ethiopia during the massive 1985 famine — said of RFK, “When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement, there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress to than that man.” I wonder if Africa would have had no greater friend than RFK had he become president.
Here are excerpts from the “Day of Affirmation” speech (audio here):
…This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in [and] young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived…
…Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress…
…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, 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.”
…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, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society…
…The first element of this individual liberty is the freedom of speech: the right to express and communicate ideas, to set oneself apart from the dumb beasts of field and forest; to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all, the right to affirm one’s membership and allegiance to the body politic-to society-to the men with whom we share our land, our heritage, and our children’s future…
…Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men’s lives. Everything that makes man’s life worthwhile-family, work, education, a place to rear one’s children and a place to rest one’s head -all this depends on decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people. Therefore, the 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…
…And even government by the consent of the governed, as in our own Constitution, must be limited in its power to act against its people; so that there may be no interference with the right to worship, or with the security of the home; no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties by officials high or low; no restrictions on the freedom of men to seek education or work or opportunity of any kind, so that each man may become all he is capable of becoming.
….Nations, like men, often march to the beat of different drummers, and the precise solutions of the United States can neither be dictated nor transplanted to others. What is important is that all nations must march toward increasing freedom; toward justice for all; toward a society strong and flexible enough to meet the demands of all its own people, and a world of immense and dizzying change.
…As I talk to young people around the world I am impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future… It is these qualities which make of youth today the only true international community…
Senator Kennedy warned South African youth and youth throughout the world against four 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 and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s greatest 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. A young Italian explorer discovered the New World…
…The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities… But if there was one thing President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feelings of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, 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…
… 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 of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change… I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world…
… The fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us… 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.
… I know at times you must feel very alone with your problems and difficulties. But I want to say how impressed I am with what you stand for and the effort you are making; and I say this not just for myself, but for men and women everywhere. And I hope you will often take heart from the knowledge that you are joined with fellow young people in every land, they struggling with their problems and you with yours, but all joined in a common purpose; that, like the young people of my own country and of every country I have visited, you are all in many ways more closely united to the brothers of your time than to the older generations of any of these nations; and that you are determined to build a better future.
Audacity of Hope? Mendacity of Hope?
In his book The Audacity of Hope (p. 314), then Senator Obama quoted President John F. Kennedy on the aims of U.S. foreign policy:
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
In his prescriptions for change, Senator Obama said, “In almost every successful movement of the last century, from Gandhi’s campaign against British rule to the Solidarity Movement in Poland to the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, democracy was the result of local awakening.We can inspire and invite other people to assert their freedoms… we can speak out on behalf of local leaders whose rights are violated; and we can apply economic and diplomatic pressure to those who repeatedly violate the rights of their own people…
Over the past five years, there have been many “local awakenings” in the Middle East and in the “huts and villages” of Africa. I am hard-pressed to recall those instances when President Obama spoke on behalf of local leaders in Africa whose rights continue to be violated every day. While the U.S. has selectively imposed economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against the brutal regimes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan, it has turned a blind eye, deaf ear and muted lips to the equally brutal regime in Ethiopia that has been engaged in the most egregious and flagrant human rights violations in recent African history. President Obama follows a double standard in dealing with African dictators. To paraphrase President Franklin Roosevelt, there are African dictators who are S.O.B.s and they get hammered with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Then there are African dictators who are our S.O.B.s. They get rewarded with billions of American taxpayer dollars.
A couple of weeks ago, in his New York Times opinion piece, Eskinder Nega, the symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia and Africa, made a compelling case formulated straight out of The Audacity of Hope to the Obama Adminsistration: “I propose that the United States impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia (while continuing to extend humanitarian aid without precondition) and impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.” If President Obama cannot act on a recommendation straight out of his own book, Africans will have a difficult time knowing the difference between the audacity of hope and mendacity of hope.
As for “speaking out on behalf of local leaders whose rights are violated”, President Obama should speak out on behalf of Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel and many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners.President Obama could also say a few words to “inspire and invite” African youth “to assert their freedoms”.
“Each time a man (and a woman) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he (she) sends forth a tiny ripple of hope…”
(Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.)
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