On Anniversary, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Awards Honors March for Our Lives, Young Activists

Ethel Kennedy
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Groups of young activists involved in gun control, immigration, the environment, and race relations were honored at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Awards in a ceremony that took place on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s final campaign victory and tragic death.

Those recognized included students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for demanding action on gun violence and for their work in organizing March for Our Lives.

Cameron Kasky, an organizer of the march, told the crowd that his generation was “often shrugged off as selfish, image-obsessed, and ignorant people.” He said, “our generation has inspired each other by standing up, to keep moving forward, to keep bolstering the voices of others our age, and to work with people from other generations.”

“Bobby was tough. He was relentless. He looked at the world and saw something that could be so much better,” Kasky said, surrounded by other students who are planning a summer of activism around the country.

Also honored was Color of Change, the racial and economic justice group; United We Dream, which has been organizing Dreamers to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and the International Indigenous Youth Council, which had staged protests at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Among those present at the Capitol Hill ceremony were his widow, Ethel Kennedy, along a number of their children and grandchildren. It took place in the Kennedy Caucus Room, the same place where Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1968 and where his brother, John F. Kennedy, launched his campaign eight years earlier.

Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s daughter, talked of how different her father’s 85-day campaign was from that of so many other politicians, as he emphasized the need to heal divisions in the country over race and the ongoing war in Vietnam.

“Try to imagine someone, a legitimate candidate for president today, saying, ‘Peace and justice and compassion towards those who suffer, that is what I will do if I am elected,'” she said.

She noted that “everywhere he went, my father met with students bent on challenging the status quo.”

Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, just after winning the California primary and delivering a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel. He died early the next morning.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) told the crowd that he is convinced Kennedy would have become president, ended the Vietnam war early, and ended many of the nation’s divisions.

Lewis had been working on Kennedy’s campaign in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and recalled the speech, below, that Kennedy gave to a crowd that had been expecting a campaign stop.

A number of those who were listening had not yet heard the news about King, and Kennedy told the crowd, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Lewis noted that on that evening, there were riots in other cities, but in Indianapolis, “There was not any violence, it was so peaceful and so orderly.”

He also connected the gun violence of a half-century ago to today, with so many mass school shootings. “What is it in America, what is it in our makeup, [that] we take our young, take our best?” Lewis said.
Also in attendance at the Capitol Hill event were Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers who was on stage near Kennedy as he delivered his victory speech at the Ambassador, and Peter Edelman, who was a member of Kennedy’s Senate staff and is a longtime social justice advocate.

On Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, along with Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and grandson Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.). Kenny Chesney, the Eastern High School Choir, and the Choral Arts Society of Washington will perform.