Kudos to City Council Member Will Oliver, MUSD Superintendent Todd Lile and the rest of the team who made the May 30 observance of the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Madera happen, and likewise to those in attendance.
As a celebratory event commemorating American royalty visiting Madera, and as an academic affair, it was a great success. Nonetheless, as a Boomer, I was left wanting — wanting something deeper and more meaningful in view of the pressing public questions staring us in the face. I kept waiting to hear the recording of “Abraham, Martin and John” by Dion that never happened. That song can make a stone cry.
Is this an event that will fade back into the past? The question is not whether we honor the man; the question is: What are we commemorating? I trust it is the message. Remembering history is important to understand how we got here and where we go next and how. Whenever we look back at what we later see as fundamental shifts, we see critical moments, key actors and social contexts.
There’s a joke that goes: “If you remember the sixties you weren’t there.” True enough, but the sixties zeitgeist is forever seared in our hearts. The sixties helped define and inspire an entire generation.
Bobby Kennedy was one of the icons of a pantheon that included Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Saul Alinsky, Russell Means, Marsha P. Johnson, Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, Berrigan Brothers, Maggie Kuhn, Ed Roberts, et al. They soared above us and made us believe in a higher power, a purpose bigger than ourselves and restored our faith in each other.
Because of them, we all stand taller today. Many of us came of age and found our voices during this heady period. We had notions of democratic ideals and a self-assuredness buoyed by rhetoric, camaraderie and fueled by this crazy energy.
Those of us who drank the Kool-aid believed that we had a date with destiny and set off on a journey not quite knowing where the path would lead us.
So what exactly is Bobby Kennedy’s present-time relevance. Some insist that it’s been a freefall in this country since his untimely death. There is an eerie parallel between the sixties and today. Fifty years ago, assassination was the preferred tactic to eliminate opposition, e.g., John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcom X. (In fact, state-sponsored assassination began abroad a decade earlier starting with Mossadegh, followed by Trujillo, Diem, Lumumba, Allende, Romero, and multiple attempts on Castro.
Despite law banning political assassination in 1981, it has returned with a vengeance in the form of targeted killing.) Today, we see random violence in the form of mass killings at schools. There has been an average of one school shooting every week since the Parkland tragedy. In the 60s we were mired in an unwinnable war in the jungles of Vietnam. Today, this country is waging the longest war in our nation’s history, with no end in sight, in the deserts of Afghanistan which has morphed into a petri dish for worldwide terrorism. Back then, peaceful protesters were met with high-pressured fire hoses and police dogs, now it’s law enforcement with military armament backed by tanks and armored vehicles (let’s not forget massive surveillance).
Violence had become a toxic and permanent virus in American society that bled into the structural violence. More than fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our nation’s public schools remain just as segregated as before.
Currently, drug overdose is the number one cause of death among Americans age 50 and under — and they dare call the sixties, “The decade of excesses.”
Notwithstanding 15 trillion dollars spent in the War on Poverty, economic inequality is greater today than at any other era in recent memory.
The event last Wednesday was a call to each of us to stop and reflect. Bobby Kennedy was the epitome of a “profile in courage.” He shone during one of our nation’s most important moments. He coaxed, cajoled and coerced his brother, President John Kennedy, into introducing the landmark Civil Rights Act eventually passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And RFK is credited as an architect of the Voting Rights Act. He took the unpopular position of opposing the Vietnam War and was accused of being a coward, communist, un-American and anti-God.
The life and legacy of Bobby Kennedy offer powerful and enduring lessons. The controversial ideals he championed and for which he was killed: End racism, poverty and war, ring true today as it did then. Our country is on the precipice of a rare moment that calls for activism.
Will you step up and ask , “What can I do?” In your hour of decision, will you have the courage, integrity and ethical resolve to stand up, reject the hate and cynicism that abound in these political times filled with injustice, uncertainty, discord and division; challenge the mainstream narrative; and fight the good fight for the poor, disenfranchised and least among us against the rich, powerful, and influential. Remember that earlier joke about not remembering the sixties, let’s hope that when the next generation asks where you were during these tumultuous times, you won’t be muttering some nondescript answer because you were MIA. And that’s not a joke.
If you need some inspiration, give a listen to renditions of “Abraham, Martin and John” by Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and Patti LaBelle. They will leave no doubt in your mind.
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Baldwin S. Moy is an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Madera