It was 20 years ago this month that I sat as a reporter in Corcoran State Prison and watched Robert F. Kennedy’s killer attend his 10th parole hearing ― and denial. It was 49 years ago today that RFK died from that killer’s gunshot. So much hope and potential extinguished in an instant, and for incomprehensible reasons. Bobby Kennedy was 42 years old.
Although I was born the year before RFK’s presidential campaign and assassination, his life and legacy is something that has always fascinated me ― especially his work on poverty.
To members of RFK’s generation, it is well known that when he was a U.S. Senator, Kennedy traveled to the Mississippi Delta to investigate whether the War on Poverty programs were effectively improving people’s lives. University of Mississippi journalism professor Ellen Meacham is writing a book about that time in his life. When I reached out to her today to ask about the RFK legacy, she emphasized that his 1967 visit down South, often referred to as a “poverty tour,” was serious business to the Senator:
Along the way, RFK made sure that he encountered some desperately poor people, not just officials, as part of an effort to get the whole picture. A big part of what made that memorable was that he responded in such an authentic and sensitive way to the situations of the poor people he met, and then did whatever he could to craft or tweak policies to improve their lives.
Kennedy never forgot what he saw. What he heard. And in the very first sentences of his announcement to run for president on March 16, 1968, the Senator passionately expressed his goal to seek solutions to “the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.”
In cities and states around the country, people’s ears usually perk up when word is spread that one of John or Robert Kennedy’s descendants - or for that matter a distant relative - is going to run for public office. Camelot never really dies. And now it’s happening in my home state of Illinois.
Christopher G. Kennedy was the 8th child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. Kennedy was president of the family-owned Merchandise Mart Properties in Chicago for 12 years, served as Chair of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and also as Chair of the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois. Four months ago, on the day he filed his candidacy for governor, Kennedy’s first paragraph in his campaign announcement read as follows:
What once made our country different from any place on earth was the notion that anyone could make it here - that America was the land of opportunity. But today, if you’re born poor in America, you will almost certainly stay poor. The American Dream is slipping away and it’s up to us to keep this fundamental promise.
None of that language is all that original, but it’s interesting to me, because he’s a Kennedy. Due to his father’s legacy, all of Chris Kennedy’s words have the potential to carry great power. But like any candidate for political office, the first hurdles are what words he will choose, who he will choose to speak them to, and who he will ultimately connect with.
I’ve met Kennedy only once, prior to a speech he gave at the Shriver Poverty Law Center’s Annual Event in 2015 (at the time I was serving on the Shriver Center Board and I remain a volunteer appointee on the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty). Kennedy gave a good speech. Everyone in the room wondered whether he might run for office one day. Now here we are.
About a month ago, I had lunch with an associate of Kennedy’s. I marveled that he would want the job of governor of the state of Illinois; its fiscal situation and politics have been so fraught for so long. I said that what I would really love to see is Chris Kennedy going national: retracing his father’s steps to Mississippi and Kentucky and so many other American towns and cities where poverty still exists every single day, regardless of the latest national scandal playing out nightly on cable. That’s not going to happen. Kennedy and Illinois billionaire J.B. Pritzker are already dueling it out in the Democratic primary that will be decided in March of 2018.
But that doesn’t mean Kennedy can’t make poverty a centerpiece of his campaign in the Prairie State. Will he? Who knows. Campaigns are high-wire balancing acts even under the best of circumstances. And in Illinois, raw politics are rough and, well, raw. Money. Frontal attacks. More money. Yet the things a candidate stands for still matter. And in the aftermath of one of the most heated and controversial presidential elections in our history, core principles just might matter even more.
Will Kennedy focus on the least of Illinoisans? Will he speak to - and listen to - downstate voters in Cairo, Illinois? Madison? Centreville? Harvey? Will he spend time on the west and south sides of Chicago? Will he champion their challenges and take up the mantle of his fallen father’s mission? Is it too much to wish for?
Perhaps it is. And perhaps it’s not a fair expectation. By all accounts, Chris Kennedy has already done a great deal of work giving back to his community. He’s served on public boards. He’s worked in politics. He and his wife, Sheila Berner-Kennedy, founded the non-profit Top Box Foods to provide healthy and affordable food to underserved communities. Running for office is a logical next step, and Kennedy just might surprise this state’s stale political debate and do some real good if he gets into the governor’s chair.
Mr. Kennedy surely doesn’t need me or anyone else to remind him of his father’s legacy and all that comes with it. He’s lived it all his life. And yet because of who he is and where he comes from, a unique opportunity exists for him in this campaign. And then another opportunity if he is successful.
Fifty-one years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy delivered what is known as his “Day of Affirmation” speech in Cape Town, South Africa. Within that speech were these words:
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.
It is a certainty that Chris Kennedy is quite familiar with this ageless paragraph. It is my hope that Illinoisans will hear a semblance of that message from him, up close and personal, in as many places as possible where our people are still trapped in that poverty. “For those who live with us are our brothers.”