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Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Compassion of Robert Kennedy

One of the characteristics that made Bobby Kennedy so popular was his vast compassion. Although he came from a wealthy Irish Catholic family, he seemed capable of understanding the hardships and trials of others in situations he had never experienced. Whether he was cradling an emaciated infant in Mississippi, listening to the concerns of migrant workers in California, or visiting an impoverished Indian reservation, Kennedy "could move from world to world and never be a stranger anywhere."

RFK's opponents claimed that he was ruthless, but those who were closest to him insist that it was a tireless ambition to improve the world that sometimes made him appear ruthless. Robert Kennedy was passionate about helping people and couldn't understand why more people didn't look at the world the same way. He was a devout family man, and when he saw starving children, he couldn't help thinking of how he would feel if he were that poor mother or father unable to feed their child. Even the Kennedy family nurse said that Bobby was the "most thoughtful and considerate of all the Kennedy children."

Robert F Kennedy with child
at Pine Ridge Reservation
Bobby made a point of visiting his own disabled father each week, though he had a loaded schedule and ten children of his own (his 11th was born after his death), but his compassion wasn't limited to his own family. He visited nursing homes and held the hands of the dying. Bobby and Ethel held a Christmas party each year for children living in an orphanage, and he seemed to be able to instantly connect with children of all ages and races wherever he went.

According to Arthur Schlesinger, when Kennedy visited Brazil two years after his brother's death, "He gathered barefoot children around him in a forlorn community center named for John Kennedy," and encouraged them, "President Kennedy was most fond of children. Can I ask you to do a favor for him? Stay in school, study hard, study as long as you can, and then work for your city and Brazil." He left deflated that he couldn't do more for those children.

Compassion for a child inspired one of Robert Kennedy's longest lasting legacies. While touring an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bobby asked a mother what had happened to cause her daughter's face to be horribly disfigured. When he heard that rats had attacked her as she slept as a baby, RFK was motivated to action. The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation was soon born, and it exists to this day, creating better lives for the residents of a once devastated neighborhood.

Robert Kennedy's trip to Mississippi Delta - 1967
Photo Credit: Jim Lucas
Kennedy ordered the investigation of labor camps in California when he found filthy children covered in sores living in old school buses. He entered the squalid shacks of those living in the Mississippi Delta, then he fought for relief for those children in Washington. He did not shy away from the grime and illness. He held sick, dirty children and promised that he would do more.

Charles Evers, brother of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, remembered Kennedy holding a weak, malnourished black child with tears running down his face, asking, "How can a country like this allow it? Maybe they just don't know." Evers said, "No other white man in America would have come into that house."

Remembering Robert F Kennedy makes me wonder what the world could be like if we were all just a little bit like him, if each of our hearts broke when we saw the pain of others, if we all yearned to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We need not be heroes, just compassionate everyday people.

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." ~ Robert F Kennedy

Additional Suggested Reading:

Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr
85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy by Jules Witcover
The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke

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