This post was submitted by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology at UC Berkeley where she directs the doctoral program in Critical Studies in Medicine, Science and the Body.
There was no Saint Bobby. Robert Kennedy was a hawk, not a dove, particularly his role in US-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 MLK were testy. But Bobby was as passionate as he was eloquent, as compassionate as he was ruthless. After his brother’s death, however, RFK changed.
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 US 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 US 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 a ‘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 railed 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 Bobby’s rural labor rights speech to the hungry workers has never been archived.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 PCVs were in the crowd and invited us to join the lunch at the US 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 ‘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 US in January 1967, I volunteered at Bobby’s campaign office in Manhattan and soon after 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.”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of medical anthropology at UC Berkeley, where she directs the doctoral program in Critical Studies in Medicine, Science and the Body. Scheper-Hughes is co-founder and director of Organs Watch, a medical human rights project, an adviser to the World Health Organization and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science in Princeton, NJ.