Via NYC honor, RFK still bridging society
NEW YORK — As a Harlem schoolboy, David Paterson dreamed of one day sharing a stage with U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. But the dream was shattered with the death of his political idol when the future New York governor was 14.
On a blustery November morning, Paterson recalled his teenage sorrow while taking the stage with Ethel Kennedy and scores of Kennedy relatives to re-name the Triborough Bridge in honor of his home-state senator.
“Generations to come will remember your husband and the great friend of America, Robert F. Kennedy,” said Paterson to the widow of the late senator as he stood, hatless and coatless, hands tightly gripping the podium, in the cold autumn sun before a hushed crowd.
Moments later, the Empire State’s first African American and first blind governor, who signed the bridge re-naming bill into law last August, joined former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to unveil a “Robert F. Kennedy Bridge” road sign and make the change official.
The normally querulous New York political establishment, with Albany legislators and New York City Council rivals in the audience, set aside its caustic budget and political debates for a morning of solidarity.
No better symbol of the amity on display could be imagined than former Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, sharing a blanket over his legs with his outspoken predecessor, former Mayor Ed Koch, who was ousted by Dinkins after a series of racially charged incidents rocked the city in the 1980s.
The ceremony, held in Astoria Park, Queens, beneath the busy span, drew hundreds of Kennedy family friends and Robert F. Kennedy associates. They shared memories of the senator, who was eulogized as a man whose passion and eloquence built bridges between black and white, young and old, southern and northern — especially in his last campaign, the historic 1968 run for the presidency.
“Like the great bridge that stretches above us, he tied us together — people of every color, every class, and every creed,” said Bloomberg. “He united us as New Yorkers and as Americans.”
According to one of Kennedy’s former Senate aides, Black Enterprise magazine founder Earl G. Graves Sr., the senator’s vision of a more just world embraced not just political evolution but theological speculation as well.
“In 1968, just before he died, Robert Kennedy predicted a black man could be elected president within 40 years,” noted Graves, citing the senator’s remarks during a national radio broadcast.
Kennedy said: “Things are moving so fast in race relations. A Negro could be president in 40 years. There is no question about it. In the next 40 years, a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.”
While Barack Obama’s landslide White House victory fulfilled Kennedy’s political prophecy, there is no way of knowing, at least here on Earth, the answer to the question Kennedy asked in a 1966 Look magazine essay, “Suppose God Is Black?”
Written just after his return from South Africa, Kennedy described an encounter with whites who believed in a biblical justification for apartheid.
“A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve,” wrote Kennedy. “‘But suppose God is black?’ I replied.
“‘What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?’ There was no answer. Only silence.”
President Clinton recalled Kennedy’s work as attorney general to force the desegregation of Southern universities, lunch counters, bus stations and water fountains, while taking personal charge of the John F. Kennedy administration’s civil rights efforts.
“He moved a generation by reminding us that together we can cross any divide and overcome any adversity, as long as we do it together,” said Clinton. “Every time we cross that bridge, if we remember that, it’s the greatest honor we could ever do to his legacy.”
The newly re-christened bridge — best known for getting passengers from LaGuardia Airport into the city — connects Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx in a series of three bridges spanning two islands and three rivers. With working-class whites in Astoria, African Americans in Harlem and Latinos in the South Bronx, the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge links the populations he fought for throughout his career in public life.
“My father believed that our nation would be judged by our future generations, and that we would be judged not so much by the size of our armies, the throw-weight of our weapons, or the power of our industries,” said environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the late senator’s son.
“But rather,” he continued, “how we cared for the least fortunate members of our society, how strongly we protected the principles upon which our nation was founded — human rights abroad and civil rights at home — and how strongly we resisted the seduction of this notion that we can advance ourselves as a nation by leaving our poor brothers and sisters behind.”
After the ceremony, Kennedy family members and close friends climbed into a motorcade of vintage automobiles for the first official crossing of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. The sight of antique Packards and Fords, joined by classic cars of the 1950s and ’60s, re-enacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 motorcade after the dedication of the Triborough Bridge, the first major public works project of the New Deal administration.
“This isn’t just about renaming a bridge,” said Kerry Kennedy, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center on Human Rights. “It’s about building bridges, both to the past and to the future.”