The Georgia congressman, who had joined Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the 60s, and others honor the senator 50 years after his assassination
Of all who delivered the words of Robert Kennedy at Arlington cemetery on Wednesday, 50 years after his assassination, surely none felt them as intimately as John Lewis.
He read from the speech – an unscripted plea for love, wisdom, justice and compassion for black and white – that he personally witnessed Kennedy give in Indianapolis on the night that Martin Luther King was shot.
“It was very, very moving,” he told the Guardian. “From time to time you have what I call an executive session with yourself. I said to myself that evening: ‘We still have Bobby.’ Two months later, he was gone.”
Now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, Lewis was among readers and speakers including former president Bill Clinton, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and 18-year-old gun safety campaigner Emma González at the hour-long memorial service in bright sunshine. Country singer Kenny Chesney sang This Land Is Your Land and the American University Gospel Choir performed The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a favourite of Kennedy’s.
Earlier, his widow Ethel Kennedy, 90, and other family members placed white roses on the grave of the former navy serviceman, attorney general and New York senator, which is marked by a plain white cross near the burial site of his brother, President John F Kennedy.
Aged 42, Kennedy was shot and killed after winning the Democratic primary in California in June 1968. In an interview, Lewis said: “I remember I just started crying and the next day I got up and I travelled to Atlanta; I think I cried all the way from Los Angeles to Atlanta. It was a dark, dark period. But we would get better.”
Lewis, 78, who had joined Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, remains convinced that he would have gone on to win the 1968 presidential election, where Republican Richard Nixon eventually prevailed.
“I kept thinking today what could have been if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated 50 years ago,” he reflected. “I think when he was assassinated something died in America, something died in all of us who knew him, who worked with him. He was the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of so many people.
“I think our country and the world community would have been much better if he had lived. We would have ended the war in Vietnam much earlier … he would have been a force in bringing together the young people of the world.”
And what would Kennedy, who would now be 92, have made of Donald Trump? “I think he would be shocked and surprised. He would still be speaking up and speaking out and leading us.”
Lewis, introduced to the crowd as a civil rights icon and greeted by cheers and standing applause, was besieged by well-wishers and selfie-hunters as he made his way from the marble amphitheatre to a waiting car. One woman said she was proud to shake his hand and planning to be arrested for civil disobedience for the first time next week. One man told him: “I wanted to shake your hand for so many years. Thank you so much for what you did.”
In the main speech of the day, Clinton got some respite from recent awkward questions over his sexual misconduct in the White House that have overshadowed his current book tour. Reflecting on “the timeless wisdom” of Kennedy’s speeches, the 42nd president said: “I think if he were here today, he would remind us that perhaps the words he spoke then are truer today than they were then.”
Clinton recalled Kennedy as a force of nature whose commitment to social justice took him to African American, Native American and Appalachian communities as well as Soweto, the biggest black township in South Africa, a visit that enraged the apartheid government. “He encountered people and challenged all of us to do the same,” he said.
“His message really, no matter how dressed up in the finest poetry, never changed: we can do better and, because we can, we must. He gave it over and over and over and, while the words were beautiful, look at the films, if you weren’t alive then, that are coming up now. The energy was awesome and the intensity of conviction burned away like a blowtorch all those layers of complacency and comfort. Show up, stand up, we can do better, and he didn’t let anybody off the hook. He said, I wanna help you, but you’ve got to work hard.”
Clinton noted Kennedy’s love of the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Among its lessons, he said, were: “You have got to stop hating each other. It’s bad for us. And by the way, that includes the members of our clans and our tribes. The outstretched hand beats the clenched fist … We can do it all over again, but we have to do it the way he did. Speaking to everybody, saying the same thing to everybody, with a heart full of love and an outstretched hand. His legacy has brought us here, and will see us on.”
Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, born 12 years after his grandfather’s death, also paid tribute. “In the shadows, in the background, in the quiet spaces that rarely sought or got attention, Robert Kennedy found the arteries of our American heart and he said to those forgotten: ‘Your country sees you. Your country values you. America would not be America without you.’
“He held their hands, he knelt by their side, he shared their sorrows and he lifted their spirits. He wasn’t radical or revolutionary. He was human and willing to be vulnerable. It was his greatest gift to give.”
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