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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Robert F. Kennedy '48

In Memoriam

By Dan Swanson

THE miserable homes of workers in Imperial Germany typically had one feature in common--a portrait of August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party. The ghetto apartments of black people in America today share a similar feature--scotch-taped on the crumbling walls are three photos: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King -- and Robert Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy's life is testament to the changeability of man. The tough-talking aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, by the end of his life, had been transformed by the current of events into a passionate seeker after justice, repudiating a war he had helped plan, questioning the Great Society, testing the limits of liberalism. The napalm and the hungry children and the urban rubble had left their mark on this man. He had heard the chants of the demonstrators, seen the blank, glum stares of the unemployed, felt the smoldering anger that erupted at Watts and Detroit and Neward, Robert Kennedy, like many of us, searched for an answer.

Robert Kennedy's vision outreached his program. He saw the slums and called for private investment to revitalize them, never doubting that the businessmen who had helped destroy the cities would be eager to rebuild them. His plans to resurrect Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, started only by virtue of his personal resolve, are now in a shambles. The bombing in Asia he deplored -- without questioning the basic tenets of American foreign policy -- is still destroying villages and killing people. He never left behind his liberal convictions, never saw the evil about him as a logical outgrowth of the American system instead of as some series of mistakes.

Neither did Robert Kennedy ever step completely out of his previous role as an infighting politician. His electoral foray into New York in 1964 was a stage-managed grab for power, and even in his last campaign he never dispersed the tough-minded, practical New Frontiersmen who had always clustered around him, cautioning against excess, staging touch football games with poor kids for the television cameras and the campaign documentaries.

Still, Robert Kennedy sometimes freed himself from the manipulators. At one point in the middle sixties, he blurted out that the United States should send blood to the National Liberation Front, hardly a cagey political ploy. In the years before his 1968 bid for the Presidency, he traveled often to southern California, to help his friend Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union, working quietly in the days before the television cameras followed him everywhere.

THAT WAS the tragedy of Robert Kennedy's last years -- the awful tension between his surfacing humane anger and the dictates of practical politics, a tension he stretched to the utmost limits. Robert Kennedy walking in the ghettoes was responding to more than the imperatives of politics; the rage welling up in him was sensed by all of us; we felt a certain bond of understanding even as we repudiated his political proposals. Tom Hayden, who wrote the original SDS charter in 1962, had spent a decade patiently explaining that the American crisis demanded a radical solution, that the old worn-out liberalism had in fact sent the bombers over Vietnam. Tom Hayden worked for years in the same ghettoes through which Robert Kennedy paraded. Tom Hayden sat in a back pew in St. Patrick's cathedral during Robert Kennedy's funeral and cried.

Robert F. Kennedy '48 will not be at his 25th Harvard Reunion. It is already five years just last week since Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the seamy basement of a Los Angeles Hotel. Yet the anger he glimpsed and started to give voice to in the last years of his life has survived him, quieter now, smoldering again instead of burning. The people whose cause he championed still live amid the rubble, but they have not forgotten him. And the rest of us, touched by his earnest struggle to bring coherence to the madness, sensing a growing bond of kinship with him as his anger surfaced--we too have not forgotten him.

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