Lesson 19: RFK; The Language of Atonement, and Classical References

Yesterday’s announcement that Robert F. Kennedy’s papers are being reviewed inspired us to revisit one of the former Attorney General’s finest speeches, one we have not written about here before. It was a speech given only three years following the assassination of RFK’s brother, and one given at the height of Civil Rights tensions in the U.S. In it, Kennedy calls on characteristic tools of his even-then-well-known rhetorical art: classical references; alliteration; noble ideals unmitigated by irony or qualification.


This speech was delivered on the Day of Affirmation, at Cape Town University, in South Africa in 1966. You can listen to it here. It might not be the most celebrated speech of the twentieth century, or the most celebrated speech of the Kennedy canon, but it is uniquely eloquent, and delivered in that casual Kennedy-esque defiance of potential repercussions. The speech is confidence in an idea made manifest.

Kennedy said:

“In a few hours, the plane that brought me to this country crossed over oceans and countries which have been a crucible of human history. In minutes we traced migrations of men over thousands of years; seconds, the briefest glimpse, and we passed battlefields on which millions of men once struggled and died. We could see no national boundaries, no vast gulfs or high walls dividing people from people; only nature and the works of man -- homes and factories and farms -- everywhere reflecting Man's common effort to enrich his life. Everywhere new technology and communications brings men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becomes the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of differences which is the root of injustice and of hate and of war. Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ends at river shore, his common humanity is enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town or his views and the color of his skin.

It is -- It is your job, the task of young people in this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.”

What we love about this passage is that it brooks no pressure to be mundane; it shoots right for the stars. It says, This is history. Phrases like “new closeness is stripping away the false masks” are almost like lines from a lullaby, and the speech begs to be read after it has been heard. It is dense with depth. Kennedy was perfectly poised to give this speech at this time in the nation’s history. Because: what he has to say has meaning. And because: the language he uses is authoritative and poetic. So he can say things like “strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief” and make his listeners run right to the doors of the Peace Corps. More importantly, so many of those who heard his speeches remember their ideas and pass them on to their children. We all want a more ambitious view of how the world might look, and of our responsibility to act responsibly within it. This is what we miss, and romanticize.

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