Tuesday marked the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Some of my contemporaries, and many from the previous generation revere RFK. They have a strong sentimentality looking back on his ideas, and his ideals. This year I set out to understand why, and to read about the learnings that shaped his beliefs.
I read about his willingness to publicly change his opinion, to state that his previous belief was wrong about Vietnam. I learned about his tours of impoverished areas in both black and white communities in Appalachia and the South that brought an empathy and focus on the problems of Poverty and Civil Rights. What resonated most deeply with me was a passage in Chris Mathews book, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit. It was an excerpt from a speech he gave in Tokyo.
“Dante said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis maintain their neutrality…. And it’s not sufficient just being against, just saying, ‘Well, I don’t like the way things are going’. We have a responsibility to offer an alternative.”
I can be extremely cynical and critical of many things I observe in today’s current events. But offering strong opinions against the current state of things is not enough. I have a responsibility to do something. Reading about an earlier period last year, I was struck by a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips,and shows itself in deeds.”
I thought about these “deeds” and who is routinely working below the rhetoric, at the ground level. Who is doing something? Nonprofit organizations, their leaders and stakeholders are who. Beyond the lobbying they may do on an issue, they are offering programs and services directly to people who are impacted by their mission, whatever the mission. When we are philanthropic, when we volunteer, we are becoming more than just another voice in the crowd. We are doing something. We should feel good about that, but also recognize we have a shared responsibility to do so.
And for that idea, I can thank RFK.