Tonight at midnight, as June 6th gives way to June 7th, there is the powerful nexus between two symbolic dates in world history. Dates which have played a pivotal role in my life and career, as well as milestones on our world's journey towards justice.
For any dedicated fighter for equality and opportunity, there is a rich pantheon of leaders from which to study, emulate and follow. We in America often look to the founding fathers (and mothers) for inspiration. Of course, people of my generation, the Baby Boomers, are first-person witnesses to brave, determined citizens who fought and died for civil rights, women's rights, LGBT rights, and for the rights of migrant farm workers, most notably Cesar Chavez, to whom a statue will be dedicated this weekend in Riverside, Calif.
But two men that I admire and humbly attempt to emulate -- Robert Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi -- share a strange confluence that I mark every year at midnight tonight.
One June 7, 1893, the freshly-minted young barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was traveling first-class on a train to Cape Town, where he had been retained under a one-year contract. As most people know, he had purchased his first-class ticket by mail and was unaware of the laws that governed all aspects of the lives of "colored people" in South Africa. When confronted and told to give up his seat, he refused, and was subsequently thrown off the train. That injustice has been credited with spurring him to take up what became his life-long quest for equal rights and self-determination.
Gandhi didn't make it to Cape Town that day, but 73 years later, Robert Kennedy did.
Robert Kennedy had been through a deep, debilitating depression following the death of his brother. As part of his slow, painful recovery, he had run for the Senate seat representing New York and won. Afterwards, he slowly began to explore a new role for himself -- shedding the reputation earned as his brother's fierce protector and gradually embracing the role of protector of the weak, the poor and those who were the victims of racial prejudice. Part of that journey took him to Cape Town, where, on June 6th, 1966 he gave one of the great speeches of the last century, his Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University . I URGE YOU to listen to this amazing speech, if not for the brilliant surprise opening, then for the stunning ending, in which he spoke those epic words which are now etched on a subtle wall near his humble grave site in Arlington Cemetery.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus 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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
But there is cruel irony to this date, for just two years later, on this same day, Robert Kennedy died, having succumbed to wounds inflicted just moments after he acknowledged his victory in the California primary.
I often ponder this nexus. Two simple days, connected by lunar cycle, brave men and cruel circumstance... days that challenge us to realize that EVERYDAY presents us with the limitless potential to change the world.
Who could have imagined that from the dishonor of being heaved onto a backwater rail station, a small man would rise up a human rights giant? Who would have thought that another man, once feared in Washington for his ruthlessness, could evolve into a man whose eloquence and commitment to decency could time and again challenge fellow citizens to put aside hate and believe in peace (please also listen to one of most amazing examples of extemporaneous speaking in U.S. history; when Robert Kennedy calmed a crowd in Indianapolis the night that Dr. King was murdered).
It has been said that leaders don't create followers, they create other leaders. Both Gandhi and Kennedy did that. I choose to try to do the same. And learning from those two men, my tendency has not been to look up to the educated, the rich or the fortunate few for inspiration, but down to the ranks of those who know what it feels like to be lost and now found, blind but now blessed with clear site and an unflinching commitment to helping others take the same fateful steps forward. That is why I launched the D.C. Central Kitchen in 1989, and spent the last 24 years recycling food, feeding the poor and training men and women who were homeless, unemployed or addicted for jobs that made Washington stronger, safer and more economically secure.
My life has been, and always will be dedicated to the simple idea that all people have value, a role, a purpose and the right to choose their path. Although I now live in Los Angeles, where I am preparing to launch my new nonprofit business, the L.A. Kitchen, the path I follow will always pass through Cape Town and be dedicated to the memory of two men who shared a journey towards justice, on a road divided by decades.