Sunday, June 06, 2010

RFK and his entourage landed in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 4, 1966. A loud, demonstrative crowd was at the airport, part of it protesting his presence, part of it welcoming him.

During his several days in South Africa, RFK met with or spoke to a number of groups, and he was typically forthright. He met with white businessmen in Pretoria, who justified apartheid and authoritarian rule because they were “beleaguered” by the majority black population. RFK wondered who was more beleaguered—the businessmen smoking cigars and sipping brandy after dinner, or the now-banned Ian Robertson, head of NUSAS, or the famed writer Alan Paton, whose passport was revoked because of his opposition to apartheid, or Albert Lutili, then president of the African National Congress and winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, who was confined to the immediate vicinity of his rural home.

(During his trip, RFK met with each of them: Robertson, Paton and Lutili.)

He spoke to a group of white university students, and asked them why blacks weren’t allowed to vote or to worship in their churches. “What the hell would you do if you found out that God is black?”

Before an audience of 10,000 at the University of Natal, RFK observed, “Maybe there is a black man outside this room who is brighter than anyone in this room. The chances are that there are many.”

At another university he faced a questioner who claimed that blacks were too barbarous to be given political power. RFK responded:

“It was not the black man in Africa who invented and used poison gas and the atomic bomb, who sent six million men and women and children to the gas ovens, and used their bodies as fertilizer.”

RFK went to Soweto, the black township, and spoke several times, standing atop his car, on the steps of a church, in a school playground. In another city, he stopped to be greeted by a group of Africans, and sang “We Shall Overcome” with them.

His popularity, particularly with young South Africans—of all races—increased daily on his visit. His presence energized and encouraged the anti-apartheid movement. Once he left, the South African government would not permit him to return. He was called a Communist, as he also was by some in the U.S.

But the highlight of the trip was the address he was invited to give, which some believe is his greatest speech. He spoke to a young audience of some 15,000 on the Day of Affirmation: June 6, 1966.

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