Sunday, June 06, 2010

Ripples of Hope: RFK in Capetown June 6, 1966

June 6 is an important date in the history of Robert F. Kennedy, for two reasons. I will emphasize the first: June 6, 1966.

Partly for his support of independence movements in Africa as U.S. Attorney-General, and partly because of President John F. Kennedy’s opposition to South Africa’s racist policies, Robert F. Kennedy—then junior Senator from New York—was invited to speak at the annual Day of Affirmation held by the National Union of South African Students, an organization dedicated to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Kennedy’s acceptance set off a domestic firestorm in the U.S. William Loeb, publisher of the right-wing newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, wrote:

“Bobby Kennedy is the most vicious and most dangerous leader in the United States today. It would make no more sense to us for South Africa to admit Bobby Kennedy...than it would to take a viper into one’s bed.”

Loeb’s editorial reminds us that right wing vituperation is not new. It also reminds me of something Robert Kennedy said on another occasion: “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”

Lyndon Johnson’s White House also opposed the trip. LBJ considered RFK a dangerous political rival. Though the white South African government granted RFK a visa, no government ministers would greet him. The government especially disapproved of the organization he would address, and two weeks before he arrived, the head of NUSAS was banned from political and social activity for five years. Visas to 40 U.S. print and TV reporters requesting to cover the event were denied.

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