Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Who was Robert Kennedy?

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

There was no Saint Bobby.

Robert Kennedy was a hawk not a dove, particularly with respect to his role in U.S.-Latin American relations. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was RFK who convinced his brother that a blockade would not be as effective as an invasion of Cuba. Relations between JFK and Bobby with Martin Luther King were testy. But Bobby was as passionate as he was eloquent, as compassionate as he was ruthless. After his brother’s death, RFK changed.

Pele and Robert Kennedy
Soccer superstar Pele and Robert Kennedy in Brazil in 1965

I met Robert Kennedy in April 1966 during his travel to Recife, Brazil, with Orville Freeman, secretary of agriculture. They came to negotiate a USAID program with the military dictatorship. The sugar industry was failing despite the labor of rural sugarcane cutters who earned a dollar a day. The workers were starving and their babies dying like flies.

Bobby accompanied Freeman to give a talk in the rural town of Carpina. Word spread quickly that a Kennedy would be speaking to sugarcane workers in front of the AFL-CIO labor syndicate, a U.S. project to discourage angry rural workers from joining local unions perceived as subversive. Two Peace Corps buddies and I came to hear what RFK would say to hundreds of rural workers. A U.S. embassy person provided simultaneous translation.

Freeman called for a “self-help” attitude by the subsidized sugar industry, suggesting that tractors could replace cane cutters. But how could the rural workers survive? The crowd of barefoot peasants wanted to hear what Kennedy had to say, not Roberto Kennedy but JFK himself, who they believed had come back from the dead. The younger brother looked like JFK to the workers who had no TV sets.

They cheered when Bobby declared that all workers had the right to form strong and independent unions. Suddenly the translator began to change RFK’s “radical” words, while wiping the sweat off his face. When Bobby began to rail against the evil of defrauding workers of their wages, I took a deep breath. Did Bobby know that words like this could get a dissident arrested and tortured? The event was quickly ended and the speakers hustled off the stage. Bobby’s rural labor rights speech to the hungry workers has never been archived.

On leaving, Kennedy noted that a few Peace Corps volunteers were in the crowd. He invited us to join the lunch at the U.S. Embassy in Recife. I moved my seat to whisper to “Roberto” that the official embassy translator had butchered his speech. Bobby’s face turned red. He listened to our description of military violence against local union leaders who had been “disappeared.”

Two months later, in June 1966, RFK delivered his “ripple of hope” speech on the evil of apartheid in South Africa and the United States. He called on the youth of South Africa to change their world, saying “Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in isolated villages and city slums around the world.”

When I returned to the U.S. in January 1967, I volunteered at Bobby’s campaign office in Manhattan, and soon after I joined what was left of the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. On June 5, 1968, I was in the SNCC Freedom House writing a report on “Hunger and Malnutrition in Southwest Alabama.” Still grieving the execution of MLK, the murder of RFK was more than I could stand.

But recalling his words to young people in South Africa brought me back to my senses: ”Let us go forth to lead the land we love…knowing that here on earth God’s work must be our own.”