Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
Robert F. Kennedy
The sad phrase “what might have been” is often applied to Robert Francis Kennedy. What might America be today had Kennedy lived? What if he had gotten the presidential nomination of his party in the summer of 1968, been elected that autumn, and served eight years?
We don’t know, of course, but we can speculate. Cavanaugh-Simmons entertains thoughts about greater amity among the races, less income inequality, greater protection for the environment, forty years of health care for the entire nation, and less frustration about the responsiveness of government. Watergate wouldn’t have happened with its attendant cynicism, which corrodes the body politic to this day (of course, it’s possible that some similar scandal would have plagued RFK). At the very least, Cavanaugh-Simmons notes, 21,000-plus Americans would not have been killed in Southeast Asia between ’69 and ’76, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
“In some ways,” says Cavanaugh-Simmons, “Bobby was at the center of what the ’60s were all about—the idealism, the hopefulness, the belief in positive change, the belief in critically examining who we are as a nation and who we can be.”
“Tribune of the underclass” is the phrase used by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger to describe the role adopted in the 1960s by Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). He was an advocate for millions of people who felt shut out from the American Dream of prosperity and upward mobility.
Born in the affluent town of Brookline, Massachusetts, raised in a wealthy family, he was schooled at the dinner table about politics and history. “I can hardly remember a mealtime,” he said, “when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world.”
He entered government service in the 1950s, and in 1959-60 managed the successful presidential campaign of his elder brother, John. He served as attorney general of the United States from 1961 to 1964. It was here that he came to the attention of the nation. He was widely regarded as his brother’s closest adviser and as the second most powerful man in the country. Bobby emotionally engaged with the civil rights movement during those tumultuous years, persuading his brother to give top priority to legislation designed to improve the lives of black Americans. This effort reached fruition with an extraordinary speech by the president on June 11, 1963, that put the civil rights struggle at the center of the White House agenda (and that cost JFK several significant points of political support): “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” said the president. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”
“Those words,” notes Cavanaugh-Simmons, “are commonsensical in the 21st century; they were quite shocking, and/or exciting, for many Americans in 1963. They electrified me.”
Bobby was quite different from his older brother, Cavanaugh-Simmons notes: grittier, rougher around the edges, reticent. “And with a palpable sweetness to him,” she adds, smiling, “that I can’t really square with the supposed ruthlessness.”
Jack made the Kennedy name “magical,” to quote journalist Alden Whitman, and the aura suddenly, shockingly, became Bobby’s, on November 22, 1963, when the president was shot and killed in Dallas.
Plunged into grief and spiritual doubt, RFK sought release in action (climbing mountains, fording rapids), reading (he developed a liking for the ancient Greeks), and, most importantly, in public service. He sought and gained election to the United States Senate from the state of New York. From 1965 to ’68 he was a restless investigator of many causes and issues, including hunger in the American South, the plight of migrant farmworkers in California, and US involvement in Vietnam. He traveled and spoke widely. In 1966 in South Africa he said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
One of the words frequently used to describe Robert Kennedy between 1963 and ’68 is “growth.” He seemed to embrace the fullness of American complexity, danger, and potential. He was widely regarded as a future president.
He ran for the presidency in the spring of 1968—a magnificent uphill primary campaign during which he built an astonishing and complex coalition, winning endorsements and votes from members of the white working class, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. As noted by the website HistoryAccess.com, the old-school football coach Vince Lombardi endorsed him, and the rock group Jefferson Airplane held a fundraising concert on his behalf. Linebacker Sam Huff supported him, as did soul singer Aretha Franklin.
During the campaign, in April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. RFK showed up at a rally in Indianapolis. The crowd, which included a good many black people, had not yet heard about King’s fate. Kennedy delivered the tragic news in a short improvised address. Many cities had riots that night; Indianapolis didn’t.
“My God,” says Cavanaugh-Simmons, “that is such a beautiful speech. That short speech is one of the most powerful ‘Who Are We as Americans?’ statements ever made. Ever. An unprepared speech, flawed, halting, but from the heart. From the heart. It was: ‘Here I am, here is who I am, I am not going to hide anything from you, I am going to speak from the heart. We’re going to look at who we are, and then we’re going to try to create something that is new.”
Kennedy won the California Democratic primary on June 4, 1968. Whether he could have won his party’s nomination in August was still very much up in the air, but he felt he had momentum. He was shot shortly after midnight on June 5 and died on June 6. He was 42.
Cavanaugh-Simmons was a teenager that terrible spring, politically aware, extremely interested in shaking things up, wearing an “RFK” button, and closely following Bobby’s epic journey through the primaries. His death had a quite complicated impact on her teenage soul. She was saddened and depressed. She was enraged and galvanized. And she was alienated. “It sort of confirmed a kind of generalized rage that I already had about conditions in the country, conditions in my family, conditions everywhere. It galvanized my desire to change things, including my life. It was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’m a stranger in a strange land.’ It felt like America was coming apart that year, it really did. That year was the year I started reading science fiction, by the way. I kind of wanted to leave the country and maybe the planet.”