In June of 1966, just two years before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy went to South Africa to speak out against apartheid. There, at the University of Cape Town, he gave a speech — known as the "Ripple of Hope" speech — that would be repeated over and over again and even etched onto his tombstone.
In that speech, Kennedy told a crowd of white, anti-apartheid students,
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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Kennedy's trip to South Africa is the subject of a new documentary, RFK In The Land Of Apartheid, co-directed by South African filmmaker Larry Shore. Shore and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kennedy's eldest daughter, tell NPR's Michele Norris about the boldness of the senator's visit.
"He was invited to speak by Ian Robertson, who was head of the student association there," Townsend says of her father's University of Cape Town visit. "He wanted to go because he had seen civil rights issues here in the United States and he had seen, and felt, the pain of discrimination so strongly here in our own country. He wanted to go to South Africa and be able to speak out against it there as well."
But Ian Robertson wasn't the head of just any student organization — he was the head of the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students. That put him — and Kennedy's visit — at odds with the pro-apartheid government.
"South Africa didn't want to give him a visa," Townsend says. "They didn't want him to come and the only reason they allowed him in is they were fearful he would become the next president of the United States and they didn't want to have a bad relationship with the next president. But they certainly had no interest in having him there. They didn't want to have any press about the trip; they didn't want anybody to know about the trip."
But when Kennedy arrived, he was greeted by a large crowd at the airport. It was the beginning of a five-day trip that would be remembered as a historical landmark in South Africa.
"The 1960s was the very worst decade of apartheid," Shore recalls. "This was the first time anyone really important from the outside world ... had come to South Africa, and [it] really gave people the sense of excitement and hope that maybe now people in the outside world would know what was going on in South Africa and would do something about it."
Among the things Kennedy did was meet with anti-apartheid activist Chief Luthuli — who the South African government had banned from being quoted or photographed — and visit the then-majority black township of Soweto.
Connecting The Civil Rights And Anti-Apartheid Movements
Kennedy opened his speech at the University of Cape Town with these words:
I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, then taken over by the British and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
Shore says he likes to see the looks on people's faces when they hear that quote in the film.
"The [Americans], they always sit back and they say, 'Oh, he's talking about South Africa, of course.' No, he's talking about the United States," he says. "But what he did in that moment as well is he made the connections between the anti-apartheid movement and the civil rights movement in a very brilliant, very simple kind of way."
He also made that connection in a very effective way, because while Americans may not recognize Kennedy's words, many South Africans have committed them to memory.
"When I went to South Africa in 1985, people could quote that part of the speech," Townsend recalls. "It blew them away because it wasn't somebody coming from outside to say, 'You're wrong.' It's somebody coming to say, 'I share the same challenges that you have.'"
'Suppose God Is Black'
Townsend, who was 14 years old at the time, says she remembers a conversation from her father's visit in which he discussed slavery's biblical roots with a group of South African students.
"The students were saying, 'Well, you know, in the Bible, there is slavery' — sort of the same arguments that the South made before the Civil War," she recalls. "And he said, 'Well, just think about this: What if you die and you go up to heaven; and suppose when you get there you enter the pearly gates; and suppose God is black.' And that stunned the kids, because obviously, like many, they create God in their own image, and they never imagined that God could be black."
When Kennedy returned from his trip, we wrote about his visit in a Look magazine article titled "Suppose God is Black."
"It was very important, not only for South Africa, but also for our own country," Townsend says.
The Kennedys Of South Africa
Today, Kennedy's visit is a footnote to his American legacy, but many South Africans remember it fondly. An opening scene to Shore's film has a series of South African men introducing themselves to a camera — they're all named after Robert F. Kennedy.
"We took out an ad in the Soweto newspaper looking for Kennedys," Shore says. "And we hired someone with an answering machine and within about three days we had a hundred phone calls from all over South Africa. And we brought in about 40 of these young men ... it was absolutely fascinating."
Both Shore and Townsend refer to the Kennedys of South Africa as cousins of their American counterparts.
"I always call them 'cousin,'" Townsend says. "It makes me so incredibly proud. It's really, really moving, about what one person can do if they take that responsibility to do it."