On Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Vanderbilt Visit
Did you hear what the political candidate said at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium?
“Today, as the world seems to unravel all around us,” he said, “there is much to dissent from. So … we must ask: Who is it that is truly dividing this country? I believe it is not those who call for change, but it is those who make present policy, those who bear the responsibility for our present course, who have removed themselves from the American tradition, from the enduring and generous impulses that are the soul of this nation.”
“Those who now call for an end to dissent, moreover, seem not to comprehend what this country is all about. For debate and dissent are the very heart of the American process.”
Truer words have never been spoken during the reign of Trump, but this speech wasn’t given any time recently.It was 50 years ago, on March 21, 1968, on a cold and rainy night, when Robert F. Kennedy addressed more than 12,000 people who had each paid $1.50 to hear him speak at Vanderbilt’s Impact Symposium.
Kennedy had announced his candidacy for president just five days earlier. He arrived more than two hours late for his speech at Vandy, accompanied by sons Michael and David and astronaut John Glenn. The weather had delayed his flight from Tuscaloosa, where he had spoken to a supportive crowd at the University of Alabama just five years after the infamous “schoolhouse door” episode he had navigated with Alabama Governor George Wallace. Country singer George Hamilton performed an impromptu concert to keep the restless Nashville crowd occupied.
Then Kennedy took the stage at 9 pm and the audience hung on every word. When it was over, deliriously energized students rushed Kennedy as he stepped down from the dais.
“I was so close to him, but I made the decision not to shake his hand because he was getting so beat up in the crowd,” recalled Patrick Gilpin, a graduate student seated in the front row. “I felt so sorry for him, so I didn’t even try, just out of respect.”
Gene Smitherman, a Vanderbilt student and basketball team manager, recalled a group of nuns “treating Kennedy like a rock star, complete with screaming and swooning.” Another student, Chuck Offenburger, overheard Kennedy deliver haunting parting words to one of the nuns. “Sister,” Kennedy said, “put in a word to that One you’re close to, please.”
Two weeks later, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Kennedy delivered what some have called one of the greatest speeches in American history, informing a crowd in Indianapolis that King had been killed, warning of the dangers of a divided nation and calling for “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer.”
Just two months after that, Kennedy himself was shot dead in Los Angeles. One wonders how the trajectory of American history would have changed if Kennedy had been elected president in 1968.
Would we still have arrived at a place in 2018 where we’d have a president with no concept of the “enduring and generous impulses” Kennedy described as the heart of the nation? Would we still have a dishonest, manipulative president with great respect for world dictators but no respect for the freedoms – press, speech and religion, to name a few – that make our country great?
We’ll never know the answer. But we can take Kennedy’s words to heart. He’d be 92 right now. In closing his address at Vanderbilt, he could have been speaking to us 50 years in the future. At a time when we have a president cynically stoking divisions among the American people, the words Kennedy delivered in Nashville are as relevant as they were in 1968.
“There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America,” he said. “I ask your help to give us back our heart, to give us back our spirit, to give us back our soul. I ask your help.”