Day of Affirmation Address
Robert F. Kennedy's Day of Affirmation Address (also known as the Ripple of Hope Speech) was a speech given to National Union of South African Students members at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, on June 6, 1966, on the University's "Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom". Kennedy was at the time the junior U.S. Senator from New York. His overall trip brought much attention to Africa as a whole.
In the address Kennedy talked about individual liberty, Apartheid, and the need for justice in the United States at a time when the American civil rights movement was ongoing. He emphasized inclusiveness and the importance of youth involvement in society. The speech shook up the political situation in South Africa and received praise in the media. It is often considered his greatest and most famous speech.
Decision to go to South Africa
Kennedy was first invited to give the address at the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)'s annual "Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom" in the autumn of 1965. The "Day of Affirmation" (as it was also known) was an assembly designed to directly oppose the South African government's policy of Apartheid. Prominent New Hampshire conservative William Loeb III publicly denounced a potential visit to the country by Kennedy as making no more sense than letting "a viper into ones bed." The South African government was hesitant to let Kennedy speak but eventually granted him a visa for fear of snubbing a future President of the United States. By the time it arrived five months later, Kennedy had become involved in a political battle in New York. He told Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs J. Wayne Fredericks over the phone that he preferred to wait until after the November elections to travel. Fredericks replied "Go now. If you postpone, it will confirm the idea that that everything takes precedence over Africa." Kennedy called back 20 minutes later, resolved to carry forward with the trip.
The decision was not without controversy. When Kennedy approached the South African Embassy for advice on his itinerary, Ambassador Harald Langmead Taylor Taswell informed him that he had nothing to say, that the South African government disapproved of NUSAS, and that no ministers would receive him. Two weeks before the scheduled trip, Ian Robertson, president of NUSAS, was banned by the government from participating in social and political life for five years. South Africa also denied visas to 40 news correspondents that were to cover the event. According to the Ministry of Information, South Africa did not want the visit "to be transformed into a publicity stunt...as a build-up for a future presidential election."
Back in March, White House watchdog Marvin Watson notified President Lyndon B. Johnson of Kennedy's application for a visa and his plans to address student groups. With the help of Bill Moyers, the administration began crafting a "Johnson doctrine for Africa." One week before Kennedy's departure, Johnson gave his only ever speech in Africa. The New York Times observed, "Cynics will wonder if the attention given to Senator Kennedy's visit," did not explain Johnson's sudden desire to make the trip. With a perceived political rivalry between the two, such actions by Johnson to absorb media coverage were becoming more and more common.
Robert Kennedy, his wife Ethel, his secretary Angie Novello, and speechwriter Adam Walinksky arrived at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg shortly before midnight on June 4. Between 1,500-4,000 people had crowded the airport. Most were enthusiastic supporters, though some did protest Kennedy's arrival. Margaret H. Marshall, vice president of NUSAS, stood in for Ian Robertson to host Kennedy. The next day Kennedy toured Pretoria. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd declined to see him and restricted other government ministers from doing so. That evening Kennedy had dinner with South African businessmen, who expressed their confusion over the fact that their country was overlooked by the United States, despite being committed to anti-Communism.
In preparation for the address Kennedy had written a draft, but was displeased with it. His advisers recommended that he turn to Allard K. Lowenstein for assistance on South Africa matters. Lowenstein initially declined to assist –he was about to escort the aging Norman Thomas to the Dominican Republic– but at the last minute he agreed to meet Kennedy. Lowenstein bluntly criticized the draft, saying it practically expressed the white views of the South African government and "wasn't attentive to the struggles of the people." He brought together a group of South African students who had been studying on the East Coast. They expressed similar opinions. The speech was changed accordingly with the help of Kennedy's speechwriters, Adam Walinksky and Richard Goodwin, taking a more hard-line stance against Apartheid.
Kennedy arrived at the University of Capetown in the evening of June 6. A crowd of 18,000 students and faculty had gathered to see him, and it took almost a half hour before he reached Jameson Hall. In the room were banners hung in protest of the Vietnam War. Kennedy followed a ceremonial procession into the hall led by a student carrying the extinguished "torch of academic freedom." On the dais near the podium a chair was symbolically left empty to signify Ian Robertson's absence.
|“||I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth 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 was once the importer of 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.||”|
After thanking the student union for the invitation to speak, discussed individual liberty, apartheid, communism, and the need for civil rights. He emphasized inclusiveness, individual action, and the importance of youth involvement in society. At the climax, he listed four "dangers" that would obstruct the goal of civil rights. The first was futility, "the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills." Kennedy countered this idea, stating:
|“||Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. "Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all.||”|
The notable phrase "ripple of hope" came shortly thereafter:
|“||It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped 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 that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.||”|
The second danger was expediency, the idea "that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities." Kennedy maintained, "that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities - no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems." The third danger was timidity. He said, "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change." The fourth and final danger, comfort, "the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education." He said that the current generation could not accept comfort as an option:
|“||[Comfort] is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged - will ultimately judge himself - on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.||”|
Kennedy finished his speech by quoting his brother, John F. Kennedy:
|“||'The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.' [...] 'With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth and lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.'
I thank you.
Remainder of trip
The last day of the trip was spent with various meetings in Johannesburg and a tour through Soweto. In the morning he met with Albert Lutuli, an anti-Apartheid activist that had been banned from political work and press coverage. From the roof of his car in Soweto, Kennedy gave the crowd the first news they had heard of Lutli in over five years.
Return to America
Following his trip to Africa, Kennedy wrote an article in Look magazine titled, "Suppose God is Black?" It was the first time in the United States a national politician condemned apartheid in a widely-circulated publication.
The address is often considered Kennedy's greatest and most famous oration. Aurther Schelsinger called it "his greatest speech." Frank Taylor of the London Daily Telegraph "the most stirring and memorable address ever to come from a foreigner in South Africa."
Senator Ted Kennedy, brought up the speech in his eulogy for Robert, saying "What he leaves to us is what he said, what he did, and what he stood for. A speech he made to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966 sums it up the best..."
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