Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Day of Affirmation: Robert Kennedy's 1966 Speech in South Africa

by Nomad

A Voice for the Silenced

The sixth of June marks a historically important day. It is, most famously, the day that saw the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. It was the day the tide turned against fascism and barbarity. There is, however, another event that occurred on this day which took place 51 years ago, to 6 June 1966, to the sixth day of the sixth month of 1966.

Our Nomadic Time Machine takes us to the University of Cape Town in South Africa where Robert Kennedy, former Attorney General and brother of the slain president takes the podium.

Much to the concern of many in the South African establishment, Bobby Kennedy had been invited to give the address at the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in honor of the "Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom" union president Ian Robertson. Kennedy, Robertson thought, "captured the idealism [and] the passion of young people all over the world."

A month earlier, in an attempt to cancel -or at least, postpone- the event, the South African Minister of Justice, Johannes Balthazar Vorster, banned Robertson under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and was not able to attend Senator Kennedy's speech.
As one source pointed out:
Under the banning order, Robertson in effect loses all civil rights for five years. He is prohibited from participating in politics or in NUSAS activities, and he can enter the University of Cape Town grounds, where he is a student, only for the purpose of attending classes.
It was a demonstration of the kind of justice the government offered anybody who called for equality. Undeterred, Kennedy kept his appointment in South Africa in order to speak for those who could not.

What Sets us Apart

This, Kennedy said, was a day of affirmation, "a celebration of liberty." It was a day to uphold the principles that were at the heart of Western freedom and democracy.

One of those principles is the belief that the individual has an intrinsic value and that all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Rights of the individual are not dependent on the whims of governments or kings or modern day tyrants.
For that reason, Kennedy said, "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 rightfully 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.
Bobby Kennedy quote
But, what is the value of freedom of speech if nobody is listening? What happens when your speech is ignored by the people in charge of running the government? Or suppressed?

Kennedy continued:
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. And I mean, all 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.
These were not merely important but defining ideas of democracy. Yet, even so, a government of the people had to be provided with wise checks and balances as outlined by the impartial rule of law.
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.
These were, said Robert Kennedy, "the sacred rights of Western society."  And they formed the essential difference between communism, autocracy, oligarchy, and all forms of totalitarian rule.
Indeed, the lack of freedom of speech, of protest, of religion, and of the press, is the characteristic of a totalitarian regime.

The Right Thing to Do 

Even among liberal democracies. there were often "tragic gaps between promise and performance, ideal and reality." Nevertheless, these great principles must be affirmed to safeguard the practice of freedom for all our people.

Kennedy pointed out to his audience that 1960s America was, like South Africa, still in a struggle against "the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class, or race-discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution."

Only two short years prior to Kennedy's speech, the US Congress had passed The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which among other things, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In addition, the law prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. It was landmark legislation but it was only one step forward.

Kennedy noted that the road toward equality of freedom was always not a smooth path. As civil rights leaders in the US had learned, there were costs and dangers.
For many people, all change- even non-violent change- would always be unsettling. Justice between men and nations is imperfect, and that humanity sometimes progresses slowly. Resistance to change was natural and that opposition to progress should not be underestimated.

Yet right was on the side of liberty. And, no matter how bleak the vantage at any particular moment, history was on the side of progress.
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 of 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.
Every country had its own path to "doing the right thing." Even though the direction and destination was the same, there was not a single road to get there.
As Kennedy told the crowd,  
All do not develop in the same manner, or at the same pace. 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.

Dangers and Obstacles

Justice between men and nations is not a perfect thing, he said, and often progress is frustratingly slow. If so many people expect and desire liberty, why then should it take so long to achieve?
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. 
Only a few years before, in August 1962, the South African authorities had arrested an anti-Apartheid activist for conspiring to overthrow the state. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. His name was Nelson Mandela.
As we all know, Kennedy's idealism prevailed. Mandela would be released and go on to become a Nobel Prize winner, and serve as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
It would emerge that the CIA had tipped off the South African authorities. As the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela was considered a revolutionary, a terrorist and a threat to the West. 

That brings us to the second danger to progress- cynical expediency; the kind of thinking that real world with all its complications does not allow idealist dreamers. Getting things done, according to this mentality, means putting aside one's convictions, in favor of a pragmatic approach.

In Kennedy's day, it was thought that there was no room for soft liberal ideals in the age of the Cold War. In our day, it is used to take a tough stand against terrorism- that liberal idealism is a measure of weakness and we must be prepared to forsake our all of our principles to "win" an idelogical war. 
That, said Kennedy, was dangerously mistaken notion.
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.
Kennedy called this kind of fight without principle, thoughtless folly. Why? Because, he said, it ignored "the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief-forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals."

The third, Kennedy noted, was a lack of courage in the face of public opposition.
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. 
The fourth and final danger is the dependency on the 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."

(It was a warning that many Americans choose to ignore, especially in the  "me-first" philosophy of the 1990s. Our current president is very much a poster child of that attitude.)

Robert Kennedy

Kennedy and the Higher Perspective

Ultimately, every person will be judged- will 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.
Each of us have our own work to do. 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.
Kennedy knew that the tide of progress was wider than the boundary of one country and longer than the span of one lifetime. To maintain our hope, to affirm our faith, we all must take the wider view.

The plane that brought him to South Africa had in a few hours traversed oceans and nations, traced the migration of men over thousands of years and had 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 bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of difference which is at the root of injustice and hate and war.
He continued:
Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ended at river shore, his common humanity enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin. It is your job, the task of the young people of this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.
He concluded his speech with a quote by his brother, John who had been silenced nearly three years earlier.    
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
Two years later, to the day, Robert Kennedy himself would be slain by an assassin. That tragic event was also, in a way, a day of affirmation, sending a signal to the world that liberty and progress are worth the struggle, even if it is ultimately a mortal battle.