From Dana's Guests

Robert Kennedy: A Speech on Race

Robert Kennedy

I think that it is not only useful to point out something when it needs pointing out, but when it comes to destructive, divisive behavior and speech, I think that it is an absolute obligation to do so.

Robert Kennedy was a leader because he led. He demonstrated courage when he so often challenged, as a nation, who we were being and what we were and were not standing for.

As we are forced to deal directly with race in ways that we have never, as a nation, had to deal with race before, I am inspired to revisit the wise words and profound leadership of Robert Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy
A Speech on Race
October 22, 1966
Berkeley, California

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs. Plato said: "A life without criticism is not worth living."

This is the seminal spirit of American democracy. It is this spirit which can be found among many of you. It is this which is the hope of our nation.

For it is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from.

We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich.

We dissent from the conditions and hatreds which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin.

We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another, and men must kill their fellow men.

We dissent from the sight of most of mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger, and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor.

We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle.

We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty.

Diversity speaker sheds light on racism in America
by Bob Scott, JConline
April 17, 2009

Tim Wise made the predominately white audience squirm, laugh and think.

The noted author, lecturer and anti-racism activist was the featured speaker Thursday afternoon at the Diversity Strengthens Summit IV in the Holiday Inn Select.

A little more than 100 people attended, including social service workers, Purdue University employees and law enforcement officers.

Wise gave an 80-minute talk about myriad issues related to race, including racial profiling, TV shows, stereotypes, housing discrimination, media inaccuracies and President Barack Obama.

"People continue to insist that we are post-racial (because of Obama's election)," he said. "That is absurd.

"Denial has been standard operational procedure in this country when it comes to race."

He said he used to live in Louisiana and campaigned against David Duke, an avowed racist who ran for state and national political offices.

"The dominant group has the luxury of obliviousness," Wise said.

Wise also talked about how the dominant group always defines what is the norm to minorities. He said there is "no argument" that the United States once had a system of "white supremacy" and "apartheid."

Diversity trainer James Foster of Purdue University said the speaker made people think. Foster helped organize the event, which included workshops.

"I liked Wise's emphasis on equality," said Foster, who is the pastor at Word of Life Fellowship Church in Lafayette. "He made everybody look at themselves when it comes to race."

Attendee David Clark agreed. He is coordinator of diversity initiatives and an academic adviser at the Purdue College of Liberal Arts.

"Diversity is something that is always evolving," he said. "I came here hoping to learn and pass on information to others."

West Lafayette Police Chief Jason Dombkowski said all of the local law enforcement agencies were represented at the event.

"It was thought-provoking," he said. "It's all about placing yourself in somebody else's shoes."

The event was presented by the Lafayette Diversity Roundtable group, which is under the auspices of Greater Lafayette Commerce through the Chamber of Commerce.

We dissent from all those structures- of technology and of society itself- which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country.

These are among the objects of our dissent. Yet we must, as thinking men, distinguish between the right of dissent and the way we choose to exercise that right. It is not enough to justify or explain our actions by the fact that they are legal or constitutionally protected. The Constitution protects wisdom and ignorance, compassion and selfishness alike. But that dissent which consists simply of sporadic and dramatic acts sustained by neither continuing labor or research- that dissent which seeks to demolish while lacking both the desire and direction for rebuilding, that dissent which contemptuously or out of laziness, casts aside the practical weapons and instruments of change and progress- that kind of dissent is merely self-indulgence. It is satisfying perhaps to those who make it.

But it will not solve the problems of our society. It will not assist those seriously engaged in the difficult and frustrating work of the nation. And, when it is all over, it will not have brightened or enriched the life of a single portion of humanity in a single part of the globe.

All of us have the right to dissipate our energies and talent as we desire. But those who are serious about the future have the obligation to direct those energies and talents toward concrete objectives consistent with the ideals they profess. From those of you who take that course will come the fresh ideas and leadership, which are the compelling needs of America.

Devoted and intelligent men have worked for generations to improve the well-being of the American people, diminish poverty and injustice, and protect freedom. Yet even as we honor their accomplishments we know that our own problems will not yield to the ideas and programs on which past achievement has been built. Ideas are often more confining, more difficult to discard, in their success than in their failure. Yet we must look to your generation, a generation which feels most intensely the agony and bewilderment of the modern age, and which is not bound to old ways of thought...

The great challenge before us is what you have gathered to consider: The revolution within our gates; the struggle of Negro Americans for full equalitiy and freedom.

That revolution has now entered a new stage, one that is at once more hopeful and more difficult, more important and more painful. It is to give every Negro the same opportunity as every white man to educate his children, provide for his family, live in a decent home, and win human acceptance as well as economic achievement in the society of his fellows. And it is to do all this in the face of the ominous growth of renewed hostility among the races.

This will not be achieved by a law or a lawsuit, by a single program or in a single year. It means overcoming the scarred heritage of centuries of oppression, poor education, and the many obstacles to fruitful employment. It means dissolving ghettos- the physical ghettos of our big cities and those ghettos of the mind which separate white from black with hatred and ignorance, fear and mistrust...

Some among us say the Negro has made great progress- which is true- and that he should be satisfied and patient- which is neither true nor realistic. In the past twenty years we have witnessed a revolution of rising expectations in almost every continent. That revolution has spead to the Negro nation confined within our own. Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not make revolutions. It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion of justice are unloosed...

We have held out the promise that color whall no longer stand in the way of achievement or personal fulfillment or keep a man from sharing in the affairs of the country. We have unveiled the prospect of full participation in American society, while television, radio, and newspapers bring to every Negro home the knowledge of how rewarding such participation can be. With so bountiful a promise how much greater must be the frustration and the fury of the Negro- especially the young Negro... For him the progress of the past can count for little against the crushing awareness that his hopes for the future are beyond his reach for reasons which have tille to do with justice or his worth as a man. Occassionally, broken hope and a deeply felt futility erupt in violence and extreme statements and doctrines. If we deny a man his place in the larger community then he may turn inward to find his manhood and identity, rejecting those he feels have rejected


But if any man claims the Negro should be content or satisfied, let him say he would willingly change the color of his skin and go to live in the Negro section of a large city. Then, and only then, has he a right to such a claim.

Yet however much the condition of most Negroes must call forth compassion, the violence of a few demand condemnation and action...

To understand the causes is not to permit the result. No man has the right to wantonly menace the safety and well-being of his neighbors. All citizens have the right to security in the streets of their community- in Birmingham or in Los Angeles. And it is the duty of all public officials to keep the public peace and bring to justice those who violate it.

I know many of you understand the terrible frustration, the feeling of hopelessness, the passion for betterment which, denied to others, has turned to violence and hate. It is difficult to live in the shadow of a multimillion dollar freeway, to watch the white faces blur as they speed by the problems of the city, returning each evening to the pleasant green lawns of the suburbs. And it must be difficult beyond measure to share in America's affluence enough to own a television set- and to see on that set the hate and fear and ugliness of little Negro children being beaten and clubbed by hoodlums and thugs in Mississippi.

Some have turned to violence. And the question many Negroes surely ask themselves- the question many of you surely ask yourselves- is, why not?

Why not turn to violence?

But the course of violence would be terribly, awfully wrong. Not just because hatred and violence are self-defeating- though they are self-defeating, for they strike at the very heart of obedience to law, peaceful process, and political cooperation which are man's last best hopes for a decent world.

We must oppose violence not just because of what violence does to the possibilies of cooperation between whites and blacks; not just because it hampers the passage of civil rights bills, or poverty legislation, or open-occupancy laws.

The central disease of violence is what it does to all of us- to those who engage in it as to those who are its victims.

Cruelty and wanton violence may temporarily relieve a feeling of frustration, a sense of impotence. But the damage of those who perpetrate it- these are the negation of reson and the antithesis of humanity, and they are the besetting sins of the twentieth century.

Surely the world has enough in the last forty years, of violence and hatred. Surely we have seen enough of the attempt to justify present injustice by past slights, or to punish the unjust by making the world more unjust.

We know now that the color of an executioner's robe matters little. And we know in our hearts, even through times of passion and discontent, that to add to the quantity of violence in this country is to burden our own lives and mortgage our children's souls, and the best possibilities of the American future.

If this is a challenge to the Negro community, and especially to the political courage of the Negro leadership whose own position may be endangered by rising militance, the challenge to white America is equally great.

In recent months we have seen comment on what some have called the backlash. Opposition to violence and riots and irresponsible action is the justified feeling of most Americans, white and black. But that backlash which masks hostility to the swift and complete fulfillment of equal opportunity and treatment, which contains oppostion to demands for justice and freedom, which denies the need to destroy slums, provide education, and eliminate poverty- that is wrong, shameful, immoral, and self-defeating. Any leader who seeks to exploit this feeling for the momentary advantage of office fails his duty to the people of this country.

It would be a national disaster to permit resentment, or fear at the actions of a few, to drive increasing numbers of white and black Americans into opposing camps of distrust and enmity.... Some say that in the last analysis, after all, we need not fear injustice; that if our great common purpose divides into conflict and contest the whites will win. In one sense, that is true. We are far more numerous and more powerful. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory. The cost would be decades of agony and civil strife, the sacrifice of our ideal of liberty, and ulimately the loss of the soul of our nation.

We can understand the apprehension of those white Americans who feel threatened in their persons or their property. Yet they are only being asked to permit others what they demand for themselves, an equal chance to share in the American life. The whole experience of our nation shows that as each minority emerged, those who came before feared damage to their own way of life, and that each time they were wrong. The achievements of each group enlarged the prospects of all. In President Kennedy's words: 'The rising tide lifts all the boats.' That will be our experience with the Negro too.

Moreover, we must all understand that the problem will not go away... Thus we have only one choice. We can face our difficulties and strive to overcome them; or we can turn away, bringing repression, steadily increasing human pain and civil strife, and leaving a problem of far more terrifying more terrifying and grievous dimensions to our children. Anyone who promises another course, who pledges a solution without cost or effort or difficulty, is deluding both himself and the people to whom he speaks.

Like other minority groups, Negroes will bear the major burden of their own progress. They will to make their own way, as they are doing. But we must remember that other minorities, including my own, also made progress through increasing their political and economic power as well as by individual effort. Nor was that progress completely without violence, fear, and hatred. Moreover, earlier immigrants often began their cities by moving to the unsettled West, a door now closed; or finding unskilled labor, a door whish is swiftly narrowing. Today, to find a job requires increasingly complex skills, denied to those without education. Nor did other minorities suffer under the special handicaps of the Negro heritage and the crushing forces of racial feeling from whose poisons few whites have fully liberated themselves.

Thus, the changed circumstances of modern life and the peculiar nature of the Negro experience make large-scale government action necessary if we are to crush the remaining barriers to equal opportunity and to lead an accelerating national effort to give Negroes a fair chance to share equally in the abundance and dignity of American life...

Even if we do all this and much more, if we act on an unprecedented scale, progress will still be slow. It is true, as Jefferson wrote, that 'the generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it'. The problem of giving content to equality is deeply embedded in the structure of American life. It cannot be swept away with a single blow. Yet we can create the steady, concrete, and visible achievements which will justify and sustain the expectation that each year will bring greater opportunity than the last. And we can support and nourish the faith of Negro Americans that their country recognizes the justice of their cause and the urgency of their needs.

This is one of the many crossroads at which American life now stands. In the world and at home, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to help make the choices which will determine the greatness of the nation. You are a generation which is coming of age at one of the rarest moments in history- a time when all around us the old order of things is crumbling and a new world society is painfully struggling to take shape. If you shrink from this struggle, and these many difficulties, you will betray the trust which your own position forces upon you.

You live in the most privileged nation on earth. You are the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation; for you have been given the opportunity to study and learn, to take your place among the tiny minority of the world's educated men. By coming to this school you have been lifted onto a tiny, sunlit island while all around you lies an ocean of human misery, injustice, violence, and fear. You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment to the best qualities of your own spirit.

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