Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why not?

When someone says, “We can’t change it, because that’s the way it’s always been,” I say, “Why not?”

At the heart of my need to speak out is my six-year-old self. I was seventeen days from my seventh birthday, June 8, 1968. I remember it vividly, but as an observer now. I see my white button-front, short-sleeved shirt with the Peter Pan collar; the tail of which hung over my blue cotton shorts. I was a notorious un-tucker. No shirttail would remain tucked in a waistband if I could get away with it. I see the white socks folded over the fine blond hair at my ankles, and the faded blue canvas Keds I’m surprised are still on my feet. It was Saturday, so we were probably going to town later, hence the shoes. I hated shoes almost as much as I hate my bra now. I was a scrawny tomboy with a Dutch boy haircut, the top layer of sandy blond faded white from hours in the sun. I had freckles on my cheeks and tears running from my blue eyes, as I squinted into the morning sun. I stood, one foot in each seat, pulling on the bars to make the sit-down swing rise and fall. As I swayed back and forth, the swing sang a rhythmic “scree-scraww,” and one of the swing-set legs thumped up and down, loosened from its buried concrete footing. Above the rusted iron protestations of the swing, a young man’s voice cut through the air.

I had procured, (probably without permission, because that is how I rolled at six,) a small transistor radio. It was in the corner of the swing seat, tied there with a piece of baling wire I found out by the horse barn. I was resourceful, if not wise, as evidenced by some of my other adventures as a child. I was alone on the swing because the rest of my family was inside, watching a grainy black and white TV image of what I was listening to on my pilfered transmitting device. I was only six, but I had fallen in love and my heart had been broken. The adults could never understand the depth of my misery, so I chose to deal with it alone, outside. That’s where most of my childhood miseries were dealt with, outside, on a swing, in a tree house, a hidden fort, or floating in a small boat. On this day, I was completely without hope, the sun would never rise again, and my little broken heart would never heal.

How I came to love that man, I will never know. I do not remember a single thing about my infatuation other than that Saturday morning of bereavement on my swing. Years later, as a sophomore in college, I wrote a research paper on his speech writing skills and innate ability to deliver a universally understood message. My first crush was Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy and, on June 8, 1968, I listened to his brother Teddy give his eulogy. I had been in deep mourning for two days and was now in attendance at the memorial for my beloved Bobby. I may physically have been standing in an old rusty swing set on a country road in Inez, North Carolina, but my mind was in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Teddy quoted from one of Bobby’s speeches, given to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966.

Robert Kennedy arriving in
Cape Town, the site of his famous
"Day of Affirmation" speech.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. 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, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”  

Of course I don’t remember that quote off the top of my head. When I was older, I looked up the eulogy and printed a copy for myself. I also found a recording of the memorial service on vinyl and listened to it from time to time. I read every speech Robert Kennedy ever wrote for himself and his President brother. I’m quite sure that my devotion to standing up for what I believe in comes from the phrases I do remember from that sad day in June of 1968. Although I may not have always heeded them, I heard these words running through my mind throughout my life, as a gentle reminder to do the right thing.

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
“Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not."

The passage of time has given me insights into Robert Kennedy’s life that I did not possess as a child. Without the taint of scandal and politics, I fell in love with an ideal. I believed that we could make a difference and that standing up for those who could not stand for themselves was always the right thing to do. I still believe that. I went through changes in my lifetime that affected my political views. We all do. But it seems I’ve come home to my roots as I aged. I, like many of my generation, still believe in ideals.

We are the generation that walked hand in hand through the civil rights movement in our classrooms. The adults were on the outside, fighting over the color of skin. We were at our desks, learning that we were not so different after all. We are the children that watched our first war from our living room television sets, and the resulting protests in the streets. We are the generation who saw women stand up to the status quo and win; fighting for equal rights and working to pass Title IX, from which I reaped many benefits in both education and athletics. We are the generation that blew away the closet doors and became very active on the issue of civil rights and equality for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. We are the generation that learned as babies, listening to the radio, that social change does happen. We never forgot what we witnessed.

Something else happened on June 8, 1968. James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., was captured in London. That seems rather coincidental or perhaps poetic. The fiftieth anniversary of The March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech is August 28, 2013. Many marches and events are planned for the anniversary. I hope they are well populated, for we still have much to do before discrimination is a thing of the past. With all I’ve read in the news lately, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and bank account status has not been overcome, just set aside, a “it's better than it used to be” kind of thinking, the status quo of our day. We tend to look at discrimination as something that happens outside of our homes, out of our control, a “we can’t change the way other people think” mentality. That little girl in the Peter Pan collar believed in a world where wrongs were righted. I still believe. I still ask, “Why not?”

"There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember -- even 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 we do -- nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can." Robert Francis Kennedy

Link to the last portion of the eulogy given by Ted Kennedy.

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