My brother Conor and I were honored to speak at the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign this weekend in Mississippi. We were humbled to march and carry on the ideals of the Civil Rights movement and the leaders who shaped it, including Dr. Martin Luther King, my grandfather RFK, and my great uncle JFK, who said “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” We met James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the then segregated University of Mississippi. The battle to get Mr. Meredith into Ole Miss was the last great battle of the Civil War. It required my Great Uncle and 16,000 troops to get one student to register for school. For 24 hours they fought 3000 bigots armed with chains and axe handles. Over 300 people were injured and 3 people died.
Later, my grandfather flew to Ole Miss for commencement, with considerable trepidation. As his tiny plane descended into Oxford in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, he told my grandmother he felt like a “chicken going into the fox house”. Though this time he was greeted by one of the most enthusiastic and largest crowds in the history of the state.
This is an optimistic message we should all take to heart. Every nation, like every individual, has a darker side and a lighter side. The easiest thing for a politician to do is to appeal to bigotry, self-interest, and false patriotism. The more difficult task, the one that RFK and MLK undertook, is to appeal to our lighter angels, transcending narrow self-interest to live our lives for others.
Grandpa said “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” RFK and MLK resisted the seduction of the notion that we can move forward as a nation without helping our poorest brothers and sisters. As Dr. King said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” That was true then and is true today.