Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Four score and eight years ago...

It has been forty years since the campaign of 1968. A tumultuous political season that saw the assassination of two civil rights leaders. Recently, I watched Emilio Estevez's 2006 film Bobby. Estevez's film about the tangible excitement and hope of the Democratic party - even though it was in theaters before the primary season - could have easily been about the 2008 campaign.

Bobby tells the story of the people on the ground, the Americans caught up in a movement of hope and change for race relations in the United States during the 1968 primary season. Many of the characters are cynical or resistant to change, including minorities. It was hard for me not to create parallels between Robert Kennedy in 1968 and Barack Obama in 2008 and the messages of their respective campaigns.

Tonight, history will be made. America will either elect the first woman Vice-President or the first black President. While this has been a grueling election cycle, hopefully Americans will still be able to take pride in the historical significance of Election Day 2008. Four score and eight years ago, women were finally given an opportunity to become a complete member of our society through the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Forty years later the Civil Rights movement sought to bring equal rights to people of color that were afforded to white Americans. Unfortunately, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy changed the course of not only the movement, but the course of history. Even today many Americans fear Obama will be assassinated simply because he represents change.

Historical moments aside, our next President-elect is going to have lead an extremely polarized populous. Many fear violence tonight regardless of who wins. Again the parallels to the violence of 1968 rears its ugly head. Racial and social tensions still exist in the United States forty years after the Civil Rights movement, as made clear by the smears against both tickets.

In the closing scene of Bobby, Estevez does an amazing job of capturing the shock and fear at the Ambassador Hotel moments after the shooting. You would be hard pressed to find a viewer that didn't get caught up in the fervor and hope of Kennedy's supporters during the Senator's victory speech despite knowing that in a matter of moments he would be gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan and all of the hope in the ballroom would be replaced with fear.

On April 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a speech in Cleveland, Ohio titled "On the Mindless Menace of Violence." Estevez layers audio from this speech over the images of violence in the aftermath of the assassination. To hear Kennedy's voice speak out against violence as you see a dramatization of his last moments is both eerie and profound. I would ask my fellow Americans to consider Senator Kennedy's words today as they vote, tomorrow, over the next four years, and into the unknown future.

Excerpt from "On the Mindless Menace of Violence"
Robert Kennedy
City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio
April 5, 1968
(Full speech)

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. 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. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of 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 and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

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