Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the U.S. House.
On the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, Robert F. Kennedy climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck in Indianapolis and addressed a largely African American crowd that had yet to hear the news. Stricken and vulnerable, hurting and heartbroken, my grandfather offered them what he could. Not a magic wand to heal all wounds, but some humanity to hold on to, from a man who knew what it meant to ache.
While riots and violence shook the rest of the country in the hours that followed, Indianapolis stayed calm.
That conservative Post commentator Hugh Hewitt recently manipulated that moment in his column to take a political shot against the Democratic Party is grotesque.
But before we get back to my grandfather, there are a few other things Hewitt got wrong. First, that a president who keeps black and brown children in cages, terrorizes black and brown families with military-style raids and tries to block black and brown voices from voting can be called anything other than racist.
Second, that the injury we should lament comes from being called a racist, rather than being the subject of racism itself. Hewitt’s problem is those of us speaking out against President Trump’s assault on America’s character (language allegedly “intended to marginalize and exile”), rather than a president who is actively marginalizing and literally exiling those who don’t look or live or love or pray like him.
Third, that racism manifests only in its worst offenders. This is the most pernicious assumption of white America, a familiar display of our stubborn privilege. That no matter how deeply we benefit from a system designed to advantage white over black, we can somehow wash our hands of the suffering that system inflicts.
None of our hands are clean. And the reckoning going on in this country today is a reflection of what the Rev. King himself warned us of — that it is the silence of friends, not the words of enemies, that ultimately protects American shackles.
This reckoning is hard and messy work. It can put people on their heels. But justice isn’t about what’s comfortable. If one person knew that, it was Bobby Kennedy. My grandfather was not afraid of ugliness or ashamed of suffering. He didn’t shy away from deep wounds, knowing they needed light and air to heal. Time and again, he showed up to bear witness to underbellies, forgotten corners, the sick and grime and mess of our country’s most profound shortcomings.
Coming to his knees to comfort a starving child in a sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi. Leaning gently against a weakened Cesar Chavez, breaking bread in solidarity with exploited farmworkers across the country. Sitting on a rickety twin bed next to a recently orphaned, 10-year-old Lakota Sioux boy on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Climbing onto the back of that truck at 17th and Broadway when Dr. King died.
Hewitt was right on one count: It was a good speech that night. But he fundamentally misunderstands why. My grandfather’s words landed not because he was trying to speak for all Americans but because he was fighting for a nation where silenced Americans could speak for themselves. And the audience knew it.
Today, that fight pulses through the arteries of a people unafraid to call out Trump for his white supremacy, to fight for the neighbors the president exploits, excludes and leaves behind, and to take to the streets in defense of a country worth uniting for.
The moral clarity of Robert F. Kennedy’s final years came, in part, from anger. Anger at the blatant racism he witnessed as attorney general of a nation struggling to shake the legacy of Jim Crow. Anger at the hypocrisy he saw in a Democratic Party that counted avowed segregationists such as George Wallace in its midst. Anger at a country whose silence continued to abet safe havens for injustice. Time and again, his work brought him to those safe havens, from school doors in Alabama to grape fields in Delano, Calif., to shotgun homes across the Mississippi Delta. And from all this horrifying wrong emerged in him an ironclad belief that the United States was capable of right.
Whether we meet this challenge will depend on us. A politician’s speech will not save us. It is our collective will, our choices and actions, our shouts and silence, our anger, and our willingness, as he said from the back of that flatbed truck in Indianapolis, to engage in our own small, determined acts to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
What is at stake in this moment is not Bobby Kennedy’s legacy. It is our own.