Editor’s Note: Kerry Kennedy is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a social justice and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
A year ago, our nation was gripped by protests over the repeated killings of Black Americans at the hands of police.
A year ago, my good friend Rep. John Lewis was still with us. He died last July, at the age of 80, after a lifetime of dedicated service to our country.
The 53rd anniversary of my father’s death is June 6, and in recent days I have found myself replaying one of my final conversations with Lewis last spring, about how frequently and hypocritically my dad’s name was invoked, particularly by White leaders, in calling for nonviolence during our country’s latest racial reckoning.
One speech, in particular, has been quoted time and time again: His 1968 address to an all-Black crowd in Indianapolis, telling them the shocking news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed.
While the text of that speech can be pulled up in seconds via any search engine, Lewis quietly reminded me of what has been lost over the last half-century — its context.
Lewis was with my father in Indianapolis the night King was killed, urging him to ignore the advice of White local officials to cancel the rally Lewis had organized on behalf of Daddy’s campaign, scheduled in the heart of the city’s all-Black community. Instead, they went, empathizing with a crowd reeling from tremendous pain.
In that moment, my father’s speech engendered hope. It did so because of his investment in the civil rights movement, his relationship with community leaders who stood with him that night and what he represented as one of the only White political leaders to get proximate to the horrors and fears of Black people across America, from the Mississippi Delta to the streets of Watts and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
This empathetic impulse was the result of years of hard work to step outside himself, to gut check and soul search and learn from past mistakes.
As US Attorney General in the early 1960s, my father was met by a steep learning curve, as armed marshals provided inadequate protection for Freedom Riders and riots ensued over school desegregation at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama.
Thanks to the wise counsel of Lewis and others, my father honed a shoe leather approach of traveling to meet and listen to those living in the poorest and most segregated places in America. This practice ultimately transformed him into a vocal and aggressive champion for civil rights, one who focused on solidarity and using his platform to elevate others.
In Lewis’ final days, as our nation confronted a racial reckoning after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the hypocrisy of too many leaders in both the public and private sector was evident. It is a hypocrisy that has continued to play out in the months since. It came first in the form of claims and assumptions that Black Lives Matter protesters were radical or violent — a clear double standard compared to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Then came hollow platitudes, as leaders failed to follow through on the pledges of activism they had made over the summer. For example, only a small portion of the funds that American corporations pledged to spend on racial equity have been spent or committed to a specific initiative, according to an analysis by Creative Investment Research. Many of these race-based diversity commitments often remain unfulfilled. And now, far too many are staying silent as GOP-controlled states are advancing and signing into law racist, antidemocratic measures around voting rights in a direct effort to curb the power racial justice uprisings have generated over the past year.
Long ago, John Lewis gave me a tremendous gift — the understanding that the ideals and memories of my father live on through the courage and commitment of others, like himself. Now, we must expand upon that wisdom.
It’s time to stop speaking without listening, without acting. We must check ourselves and work anew. That means building authentic relationships and using power and influence to really dismantle pervasive racism and inequality. For leaders, like our Ripple of Hope Award laureates Colin Kaepernick and PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, that has meant leveraging their platforms and public followings to advance equal rights. Similarly, Apple CEO Tim Cook launched an initiative that not only builds a more diverse hiring pipeline but actively supports advocacy groups in their quest to end mass incarceration, a system that has continually failed Black and Brown people.
The day after the Indianapolis rally, my father spoke at the Cleveland City Club, urging listeners, White members of a bastion of local power, to take responsibility for the systemic violence upon which their social standing was built. He noted how “some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.”
“There is another kind of violence,” he said, “slower but just as deadly and destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Until we truly listen, until we begin to take real and sustained action to root out the evil of racism, of violence, at its source, we cannot hope for change.