Kerry Kennedy on Today's Leaders and The Legacy of RFK's 'Ripples of Hope' Speech

In the early hours of the morning, fifty years ago today, Senator Robert F. Kennedy celebrated his California presidential primary victory with a speech at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, and then hurried into the pantry on his way to a press conference, where he was shot by an assassin and died a day later.

In commemoration of this tragedy, KCET will be airing and streaming a film about Kennedy's influential June 1966 visit to South Africa during the worst years of apartheid, “RFK in the Land of Apartheid."  During his visit, Kennedy delivered his Day of Affirmation Address, also known as the Ripples of Hope speech, where he introduced his concept of how any person might change the world.

His "ripples of hope" concept is as relevant as ever and his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, has delved deeper into the idea in her new book, "Robert Kennedy: Ripples of Hope," by interviewing members of her family, heads of state and other leaders to talk about his enduring legacy on civil rights, social justice and the role of government.

I reached Kerry Kennedy by telephone and talked to her about our current political climate in the United States, who she sees as the leaders that will help us end the divisiveness in our society and how one person can make a difference in the world every day. 

Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.



Sheri Candler: You've said that one of the greatest human rights challenges we face is hate. What do you mean by that, and how can we turn against hate and violence as an everyday occurrence in our society?

kerry kennedy

Kerry Kennedy | Taylor Hill/Contributor

Kerry Kennedy: I think if you look around the world today and ask what's the number one threat to human rights, it is hate. That is Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It's the rise of Islamophobia and anti-immigration and anti-Semitism in Europe. It is the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar and our continuing racism against people of color and indigenous people across Latin America and here in the United States. We witness it every day from our president and from the most popular television personality in our country, Roseanne Barr.  I think there are a lot of lessons we can learn from the work and life of Robert Kennedy who addressed division explicitly throughout his campaign and how he addressed those issues and his vision for change.

John Lewis said when he faces a difficult vote in Congress, he asks himself "What would Bobby do?" And I think we would do well as a country to ask ourselves that same question more often. There are certain aspects that drove him, and one central aspect of his character was his moral imagination — his ability to put himself in the shoes of the other and think about things from their perspective. That is a key ingredient to healing division and creating change. One of the lessons learned from the life of Robert Kennedy is a moral imagination, putting oneself into the shoes of the person you consider your enemy or your greatest threat, imagining what they're going through and talking about how that might feel and what action might be taken to heal that division.

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SC: Who are the leaders today that will steer us in a better, more humanistic direction?  How do we put humans first, rather than profit and power? 

KK: I grew up in a political family and surrounded by politicians my entire life. And I think that most political leaders, just like most people in other industries, get up in the morning, give a kiss to their children and go off to work trying to do the best that they can with the capacity that they have to do a great job and to make the world more just and peaceful.

I do see political leaders who are creating change. I see them at the local level and at the national level. Let me just begin with my extraordinary nephew, Congressman Joe Kennedy. If you don't follow him you should. He is really extraordinary. I think there are national leaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who gets up there every day and faces enormous criticism and keeps going and has a great vision for where our country should be. I think Joe Biden does that as well. I think at the international level, no one does this better than Pope Francis. He is a great example of a contemporary figure who is calling for healing, justice and preferential treatment for the poor and really calling for the better angels of our nature to create change.

Let me let me just add, if you don't like your political leaders, run for office. Get your friends or family together and run for office. We need new blood. We need new vision. We need new generations. We need change. No whining on the sidelines. Get out there and do it.

rfk in soweto.jpg

Robert F. Kennedy in Soweto.

SC: Where would somebody start if they wanted to run for office? What's a good way to learn how to get experience about how things work to affect even small changes?

KK: The Democratic Party, both at the state level and the federal level, does training on how to run for office. The Republican Party does the same thing. There are other independent organizations that do this as well. If you're looking for a nonpartisan place to go, contact to the League of Women Voters in your community. They can be very helpful. Most people go into office because they see something wrong and they want to right it. We want people running for office who want to do something, not people who want to be someone.

SC: Since your father captured the idealism and the passion of youth in his campaign, what do you think he would think about the Parkland students or student movements that are trying to enact change that they feel isn't happening fast enough with adults?

KK: I think that he would be thrilled to see the extraordinary work of all those groups, the Parkland students, the Standing Rock protesters, the Women's March, which was organized primarily by two women who are under 30. If you look at the big movements for change and social justice in our country today, they’re all run by young people. My father often spoke about the power of youth and his firm belief that our future was in the hands of youth.

SC: I guess we're in the same situation that he was in back in the late sixties where people are trying to stand up for what they believe is right and other people are belittling them and accusing them of trying to grab attention or that they're lying.

KK: People feel like, “Oh, this is the worst it's ever been.” But it's not. In 1968, 125 cities in our country were on fire, were burning down. And this wasn't just one night or two nights. So we've seen a lot worse, a lot worse than what we see today. And we need to keep that in mind. We have a long way to go for people of color, for people living in poverty, for people who are dispossessed in our country. A long way. But we've also come a long way.

I was just with Marian Wright Edelman last night, who I interviewed for my book “Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope” which is actually coming out on June 5 and she was talking about hunger in America and going to Mississippi with my father in 1968. We almost wiped out hunger in America in the 1980s. Now we have a president who is trying to destroy the safety net for Americans who are dependent for food. Thirteen million children living in poverty have food insecurity, not knowing if they're going to have something to eat tonight, in our country — the richest, most powerful country on Earth. And we have a president who's trying to take away what little security they have left. We need to rally, but we also have to understand that we have made progress and we're not going to let this administration or anyone else take that progress away from us. It was hard won and we are going to fight to keep it.

SC: Speaking of your book, I know that the title comes from the 1966 Day of Affirmation speech that was delivered in South Africa. But how did that concept come together?

KK: My father had that moral imagination that we spoke about. He also had this extraordinary courage. Courage is not stupidity. It's not the lack of fear. It's not being blind or asleep when there's a threat. It's overcoming your fear in order to create good for others. He sought a way to articulate the capacity of one person to make a difference. He said that few people will have the ability to change history itself. And few of us are called to that. But each of us can change a small portion, and when you put all those little things that we do together, that describes our generation.

Sometimes students ask me “What can I do to make the world better today?” And I say, “Go home and wash the dishes. Make your bed and sit down and write a letter to your mother or your father or your caregiver explaining how much they mean to you.” That's a small act of creating change. Start with gratitude. Start with saying "I love you" to somebody who needs to hear it. Let's all do that together and we will create a more just and peaceful world.  Yes, go out and protest. Make sure you vote. Get your friends to vote.

But it's not just going to the rallies. You have to follow that up with disciplined, thoughtful action.

rfk man in hat

Robert F. Kennedy in South Africa.

Top Image: Robert F. Kennedy speaking in Cape Town.

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