Bobby Kennedy Quotes: Ideas for Today
Bobby Kennedy left us with hundreds of quotes, from dozens of speeches, books and articles. But for Kennedy, politics wasn’t about rhetoric. It was about doing.
Some of his most enduring words were about the skills we need to develop and the steps we need to take -- the actual doing to reach our goals.
Bobby Kennedy realized that in a democracy, you must have dialog, and that to be successful, persuasion would be a useful skill to develop. He gained an appreciation for the power of persuasion perhaps first hand from his older brother, Jack. Bobby grew to realize that being a bull in a china shop does not work, and that the adversarial skills he had learned in law school needed to be augmented by the skills of persuasion.
It was in South Africa that he faced a group of white South Africans for a speech on the volatile subject of segregation. He later described the meeting he had:
“Our aim was not simply to criticize but to engage in a dialogue to see if, together, we could elevate reason above prejudice and myth. At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve.
"But suppose God is black," I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?
“There was no answer. Only silence.” - From Robert F. Kennedy, LOOK article (August 23, 1966).
Kennedy knew the importance of working to a common solution. That this was the democratic process, and that this too was part of the duty of the citizen.
For a common solution to be found, there must be dialog. Facing a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis, and having announced that Martin Luther King had just been shot dead, Bobby sought to defuse the anger that the crowd was most certainly feeling. He offered this:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black." - From speech in Indianapolis (April 4, 1968).
At the end of that tragic day, there was rioting in nearly every major city in the United States. However, there was no riot in Indianapolis.
For Bobby, ‘dialog’ was not a codeword for ‘appeasement.’ It was part of the foundation that made for a strong democracy. As others may denigrate the need to find common ground, Kennedy believed this task was essential. In 1968 he said:
“... the bond of a common faith, [the] bond of a common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.” - From speech in Cleveland (April 5, 1968).
The pinnacle of citizenship for Bobby Kennedy was leadership.
In 1966, he told a group of students what it takes to be a leader:
“There is,” said an Italian philosopher, “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation, and the road is strewn with many dangers.”
On leading, he goes on to say:
“This is the heaviest responsibility of all – a burden men have often refused by turning rule and ideology, belief and power, over to an all-powerful state. History is full of peoples who have discovered it is easier to fight than think, easier to have enemies and friends selected by authority than to make their own painful choices, easier to follow blindly than to lead, even if that leadership must be the private choice of a single man alone with a free and skeptical mind. But in the final telling it is that leadership, the impregnable skepticism of the free spirit, untouchable by guns or police, which feeds the whirlwind of change and hope and progress in every land and time.” - Speech at University of the Witwatersrand (June 8, 1966).
Bobby’s most compelling statement on leadership may have been about the fortitude that it requires: “Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.” - (June 5, 1968)
What Would Bobby Do?
In today’s world, where the political discussion is based upon finger pointing, rather than goals and solutions, where governing has become bankrupt, where we’re all looking desperately for solutions, Bobby Kennedy would suggest that we start by looking in one place: deep inside ourselves. Each one of us is part of the answer, and each one of us has the power, and the duty, to do our part to make our country a better place.
He suggested looking at issues through the eyes of youth:
“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. - From speech at University of Cape Town (June 6, 1966).
Bobby encouraged young people especially to get involved in the process:
“That it is you who have to decide – you who have the longest stake, you who are the most concerned for truth, who have the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future." - From speech at University of the Witwatersrand (June 8, 1966).
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It was near the end of his life, as it turns out, that his advice became more earnest and more to the point:
“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. ...
“But we can perhaps remember - even if only for a time - that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.” - From speech in Cleveland (April 5, 1968).
Robert F. Kennedy’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet after a campaign speech given in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
Despite the brevity of his of his time here, Bobby Kennedy was able to leave us with plenty. His words are still fresh, and relevant – straight from somebody catapulted into the middle of the fray.
Through his words and ideas, he has become an advisor to us all, guiding us through what we must do to succeed individually, as a country, and as nations in one world.