Harry Boyte & Steven Hahn: Obama picks up message that RFK popularized

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Harry Boyte is founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming "The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference." Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is author of the forthcoming "The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom."]

The furor over Hillary Clinton's remark about Robert Kennedy's assassination has obscured a deeper comparison between Barack Obama and the late senator. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign spoke to themes of grass-roots politics and shared governance that the Obama campaign has exemplified. Kennedy also succeeded in attracting much the same coalition of blacks and other racial minorities, young people, professionals, and blue-collar whites and ethnics that Obama seeks to galvanize.

On this, the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's murder, his campaign holds instructive lessons for Obama's.

Like Obama, Kennedy ran against an unpopular war and against the political establishment in his own party, closely tied in 1968 to the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson. But at a time of deepening social and political divisions at home, he focused chiefly on the domestic challenges and sought a "new politics" to address them. Seared by the death of his brother and inspired by the example of the civil-rights movement, Kennedy ran on a platform promoting racial and economic justice, ending the Vietnam War, and decentralizing power that touched older American themes concerning the shared work of citizenship. His campaign especially looked to engage young people, whom he saw as the future of a revitalized America, recalling its ideals of equality and partnership.

After Kennedy's tragic death, others carried on this legacy. One was Barbara Mikulski, the senator from Maryland who got her start as a community organizer in Baltimore and came to recognize that "the ethnic American feels unappreciated for the contribution he makes to society."

"What is needed," she said in 1969, "is an alliance of white and black, white collar, blue collar and no collar based on mutual need, interdependence and respect, an alliance to develop the strategy for new kinds of community organization and participation."

Other activists played pivotal roles outside of electoral politics. The late Monsignor Geno Baroni, a priest from an immigrant coal-mining family in Pennsylvania, served as Catholic coordinator of the great 1963 March on Washington. For years thereafter, Baroni worked with community organizations across the nation to bring people together across divides of race, faith and class. He learned that "the organizer has to believe that ordinary people can build bridges across racial and ethnic lines" and "has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best. The organizer has to give ordinary people hope."...

Read entire article at Star Tribune

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