Still seeking newer world 43 years after RFK's death

Johanna M. Wald | 6/8/2011, 11:46 a.m.
Harvard professor Charles Ogletree was the keynote speaker in Los Angeles this past weekend for the commemoration of...
Harvard professor Charles Ogletree was the keynote speaker in Los Angeles this past weekend for the commemoration of the 43rd  anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the very room where he was assassinated. Shown here with Professor Ogletree is Delores Huerta who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)  with the late Cesar Chevez . Huerta, 80, was with Kennedy when he was assassinated. Lolita Parker Jr.

Kennedy’s views on the death penalty evolved over the years. By 1968, he signaled his support for abolition, stating that when a human life is taken either “in the name of the law or in defiance of the law … the whole nation is degraded.”

He was also a pragmatist who could not abide government waste. We can only imagine how he might have railed against budget proposals that dramatically cut basic social services and education even as they keep intact a capital punishment system that accomplishes little in the way of public safety, yet devours millions of dollars in state and federal funds per year. Fundamentally, he would have understood the need to reorient national priorities toward enhancing life over taking life.

Georgetown Law professor and former RFK aide, Peter Edelman, wrote of his boss: “His work and his views were prescient. It is still not too late to learn from them.”

Indeed, it is not. Last Sunday, the speakers and audience members considered the economic and social costs of maintaining the current criminal justice system.  They discussed how funds allocated for capital punishment could be redirected to improve our schools, reduce high school dropout rates and treat substance abuse.

Those funds could also be redirected to pay for gang prevention programs, jobs for youths in the summer, better mental health and general health treatment, vocational training, pre-school and childcare programs, and programs like YouthBuild that help court-involved youths positively redirect their lives.  All of these cost taxpayers less than the death penalty, and all are more effective in reducing crime and improving the quality of life in our communities.

On the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a deeply shaken Robert Kennedy spoke quietly and extemporaneously to a mostly black audience.  He could have succumbed to despair and anger, or inflamed racial tensions.  He could have vowed retribution and punishment.  Instead he called forth our shared dreams.  

“The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land,” Kennedy said.

As we remember the very sad month of June 1968, let us continue to seek the newer and more gentle world RFK envisioned for all of us.

Johanna M. Wald, director of Strategic Planning, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Harvard Law School.