My life began the year that of Robert Francis Kennedy was taken away. Yet I have been moved by his words. Growing up, Bobby Kennedy represented to me the promise and the possibility of America. It is that promise that brought me to its shores and it is that promise that makes me proud to be a citizen.
Four decades later a new generation, my daughter’s generation, will inherit that promise and that possibility. This morning, in a sweeping 30 minute speech, Barack Obama gave me hope that my daughter will grow up in an America that will be a more perfect union – an America full of promise and possibility.
Nearly forty two years ago Bobby Kennedy stepped up to the podium at the University of Cape Town in South Africa to speak against apartheid and of the American struggle with its own racial history. He began:
I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
Bobby Kennedy spoke of the struggle to overcome racial prejudices in America in personal terms:
For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, on social class or race — discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and to the command of our Constitution. Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him: "No Irish Need Apply." Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums — untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?
In the last five years we have done more to assure equality to our Negro citizens, and to help the deprived both white and black, than in the hundred years before that time. But much, much more remains to be done. For there are millions of Negroes untrained for the simplest of jobs, and thousands every day denied their full and equal rights under the law; and the violence of the disinherited, the insulted, the injured, looms over the streets of Harlem and of Watts and of the South Side Chicago.
He then described some of the road traveled and the challenges that still lie ahead:
But a Negro American trains now as an astronaut, one of mankind’s first explorers into outer space; another is the chief barrister of the United States government, and dozens sit on the benches of our court; and another, Dr. Martin Luther King, is the second man of African descent to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts for social justice between all of the races.
We have passed laws prohibiting — We have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in education, in employment, in housing, but these laws alone cannot overcome the heritage of centuries — of broken families and stunted children, and poverty and degradation and pain.
So the road toward equality of freedom is not easy, and great cost and danger march alongside all of us. We are committed to peaceful and nonviolent change, and that is important to all to understand — though change is unsettling. Still, even in the turbulence of protest and struggle is greater hope for the future, as men learn to claim and achieve for themselves the rights formerly petitioned from others.
Bobby Kennedy spoke of hope at a time of racial turmoil in America and the world. Much has changed in the decades since. But many challenges lie ahead as our prejudices continue to collide with our ideals.
Today Barack Obama challenged America to carry on the work of overcoming the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination. His speech was both personal in its depth and sweeping in its scope. He asked of all of us to play our part:
I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
It has been said that his campaign transcends race, but today Barack Obama transcended his campaign by speaking to America about an issue that has the potential to deeply divide us or to finally unite us. He spoke to the fulcrum between our hopes and our fears. Our hope that we will leave for our children a society that will indeed judge them by the content of their character and our fear that we will bequeath a country and a world divided by the color of their skin. Barack Obama has now bet his entire candidacy on the gamble that America and its future is a place of hope and not of fear.
I place that bet with him because I want to believe that my child, a child of color living in America, will grow to adulthood in a country that will continue to work toward its promise of a more perfect union.
Last month in Virginia I cast my vote for Barack Obama. Today I am certain I made the right choice. Whether he is the next president of the United States or not, Barack Obama today enriched American politics and the idea of America. Today was a historic day. It was a speech for this generation and the next. I was privileged to have been alive to witness it.