The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy

Most Americans remember or know about Robert F. Kennedy or “RFK” (1925-1968): brother to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in his brother’s administration, U.S. Senator from New York, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and assassinated by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan  on June 6, 1968, at a Los Angeles hotel campaign event.

Less generally remembered or known was RFK’s eloquence, undoubtedly aided by his speechwriters: Adam Walinsky Richard Goodwin and Allard Lowenstein.[1]

One prominent example of Kennedy’s eloquence occurred on April 4, 1968, immediately after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Speaking to a campaign crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy shocked everyone by announcing the news of the assassination and then went on to refer to his own grief at the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert added, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”[2]

Kennedy that night went on to say, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”

The next day in Cleveland, Ohio, Kennedy spoke against the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” He added, “Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve justice among our fellow citizens. . . . We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for 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.”[3]

Two other examples of his eloquence were inscribed on Kennedy’s memorial  in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery:

  • “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 wall of oppression and resistance.” (University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966)
  • “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'” (1968)

Yet others were included in the previously mentioned June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town. They all seem, to this observer, to be indirect references to Jesus’ injunction “to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself” and to the Christian notion of vocation.[4] They are the following:

  • First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, 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 a generation.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I weep again at our loss of this inspiring, eloquent and passionate man. How I wish he were still here and our president so that we did not have to listen to the constant falsehoods and drivel from the man who now ineptly occupies that office.

==============================================

[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon at 373 (Random House; New York, 2016).

[2] Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen (eds.), RFK: Collected Speeches at 355-58 (Viking; New York, 1993). See Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 10, 2014).

[3] Guthman & Allen at 358-62.

[4] Tye at 410-12; Guthman & Allen at 231-46. See Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

An 1842 Journey from New York to the Iowa Territory

In May 1842 Rev. Charles Edwin Brown and his wife, Frances Lyon Brown, both 29 years old, and their two young sons (Benjamin Perry Brown, almost three years old, and Charles Perry Brown, one and a half years old) left their home in the small village of Warren in the central part of the State of New York to go on a Baptist missionary trip of roughly 1,500 miles to another small village, Maquoketa, in the eastern part of the Iowa Territory.

At the time Rev. Brown was the Pastor of the Baptist Church in Warren. Previously he had submitted an application for appointment as a missionary “in the distant West” with a preference for the Iowa Territory, and his application had been endorsed by the New York State Missionary Convention. Later the American Baptist Home Missionary Society appointed him to be a missionary to the forks of the Maquoketa River in Iowa at an annual salary of $100 plus $75 for travel expenses.

The Browns could not economically ship all of their household goods to Iowa so they sold everything except clothing, bedding, a table, a stand, a rocking chair and a small cook stove. These remnants weighed approximately 1,600 pounds.

This would not be an easy journey.  Of course, there were no airplanes or automobiles on Interstate highways to take them there. Nor were there any cross-country railroads. An account of the journey that is set forth in the memoirs of Rev. Brown, my maternal great-great grandfather (2nd great-grandfather in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s parlance), provides a window into what life and transportation were like in the U.S. of 1842 when approximately 17 million people lived in the 26 states of the Union. (Four years later, in 1846, Iowa became the 29th state in the Union.)

The First Stage: Warren to Utica, New York

Utica, NY, 1855

The initial stage of their trip for six or seven days, from Warren to Little Falls and Utica, New York, of approximately 130 miles presumably was by horse-drawn wagon. Utica, then a town with a population of approximately 13,000, was a terminus on the 17-year old Erie Canal that had been built to connect New York City’s harbor with Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes and thereby improve transportation into, and from, the interior of the U.S. This stage cost the family $15.00.

The Second Stage: Utica to Buffalo, New York

Erie Canal
Erie Canal Packet Boat

On Monday, May 2nd, at Utica the Browns boarded the Little Western, a passenger packet or Line boat on the Erie Canal for the second stage of their journey. They had a comfortable cabin in the bow. The kitchen and dining cabin were in the stern with freight and baggage amidships. “With good company, clean wholesome food, a sober and accommodating master and crew, the two hundred mile trip from Utica to Buffalo was comfortable and pleasant.”  As the boat did not run on Sunday, it was tied up for the day in Tonawanda, New York. This gave the family the opportunity to attend a Methodist Church worship service in the morning and for Rev. Brown to preach in the afternoon. On Monday (May 9th), they arrived in Buffalo, then a town of 18,000 people. The family’s total fare at 2 cents per mile for each adult was $8.00.

The Dart Grain Elevator, Buffalo, NY, 1842

With the Erie Canal, Buffalo became a key junction for the shipment of western grain to the east coast and beyond as the Great Lakes ships were too big to go on the Erie Canal. Until 1842 loose grain on the ships had to be manually scooped into baskets and transferred to the wharves by block and tackle while sacks, barrels and casks of grain and flour had be to manually hauled to the wharves and then loaded onto the canal boats, oftentimes with an in-between hauling into and out of warehouses. In late 1842, however, this changed with the invention by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar of a grain elevator with a steam-powered conveyor belt and buckets for the direct transfer of grain from the ships to grain elevators on the land.

The Third Stage: Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois

Great Western Steamer

 On May 9th, the family boarded the Great Western, a Great Lakes steamer, for the third stage of their journey. The four-year old, 185-foot Great Western was one of the largest and finest of the day and was the first to have a spacious upper cabin for its nearly 400 passengers. The entire hull was occupied by the boilers with holds for freight and wood.

Great Lakes Map

Prior to completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, shipping on the Great Lakes was primarily on sailing craft as traffic was not sufficient to make the more-expensive steamers profitable to operate. The Erie Canal, however, expanded Lakes traffic so that steamers increasingly became the preferred mode of transportation as they offered fast, efficient and predictable delivery of passengers and freight.

The Great Lakes voyage on the Great Western steamer took six days before arrival on Sunday, May 15th, in the village of Chicago, population of approximately 5,000. Other than a storm the first night out, the trip was pleasant with short stops in Cleveland (population of 6,000) and Detroit (population of 9,000). Mrs. Brown commented that on the way they had seen the “pleasant villages” of Milwaukee, Racine and Southport, Wisconsin. The total fare for the family was $48.00.

The Fourth Stage: Chicago to Savanna, Illinois

After an overnight stay at the New York House, a two-story hotel in Chicago, Rev. Brown hired a man with horses and lumber wagon to take the family and their possessions the additional 200 miles to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. Their rocking chair and a small chair were put on top of the boxes for Mrs. Brown and the older son to sit on during the ride.

On Monday, May 16th, the fourth stage of the journey began in the lumber wagon. After two over-night stops, they arrived in the town of Rockford, Illinois, the home of the wagon owner. Unfortunately the owner had to testify in a trial, and the family was forced to stay there until the following Monday. The delay, however, gave Rev. Brown the opportunity to preach that Sunday in Rockford’s Baptist Church, his “first sermon in the west.”

On the following Monday after a day’s ride, near Crane’s Grove, Illinois, they asked Mrs. Crane, “middle aged and stout” with a pail of milk, if they could stay there that night. She replied, “Oh, I reckon, though I am mighty tired. The old cow gives a right smart of milk, well on to half a bushel.”

The next morning, the owner of the lumber wagon discovered that he had overfed his horses and one had died. Mr. Crane was then enlisted to take the Browns, again by horse-drawn wagon, the next 18 miles to Cherry Grove, Illinois, where the next day (May 24th) another man, Mr. Gardner, took the family to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. This was the Brown family’s first view “of the mighty river, its volume then being much greater than in later years.”

The Fifth Stage: Savanna, Illinois to Charleston, Iowa

Mississippi River,    Savanna, Illinois

The fifth stage of the journey on the evening of the 24th was a ferry across the Mississippi River from Savanna to Charleston (later Sabula), Iowa where they stayed the night in the local tavern. Perhaps the ferry looked like the one pictured at the right.

The Sixth Stage: Charleston to Maquoketa, Iowa

The next morning, May 25th, Rev. Brown hired yet another man and team to take them the final 25 to 30 miles to Maquoketa, Iowa. Around midnight they arrived at their destination, Mr. C. W. Doolittle’s cabin. “With cordial frontier hospitality . . . Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle turned out and welcomed us, prepared supper and then gave us their bed, while they found lodging for themselves and family in the cabin loft. Tired and worn by the long and tedious last day’s drive we slept sweetly and soundly, four in the bed, myself, wife and two children.”

Conclusion

This six-stage journey took a month: 6 or 7 days from Warren to Utica plus 24 days from Utica to Maquoketa.

Rev. Brown served as a Baptist missionary in Iowa for most of the following 36 years, a subject that will be examined in a subsequent post.