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Remembering RFK's Visit To 'The Land Of Apartheid'
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Remembering RFK's Visit To 'The Land Of Apartheid'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: I'm Michele Norris. The year was 1966, just two years to the day before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to South Africa to speak out against apartheid. And there, he made a speech. It would be repeated over and over again and even etched on his tombstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: 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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

NORRIS: That's Robert F. Kennedy speaking at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966. Kennedy's trip to South Africa is the subject of a new documentary, "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," and joining me now is the film's co-director, Larry Shore, and also joining me is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's oldest daughter. She's here in the studio. Welcome to both of you.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Thanks, Michele.

LARRY SHORE: Thanks.

TOWNSEND: It's good to be with you.

NORRIS: Let's start at the beginning. How was it that Robert Kennedy was invited to speak in South Africa, and what did that decision to go there represent? And, Kathleen, I'm going to begin with you.

TOWNSEND: Well, he was invited to speak by Ian Robertson, who was head of the student association there. And he wanted to go because he had seen civil rights issues here in the United States, and he had seen and felt the pain of discrimination so strongly here in our own country. He wanted to go to South Africa and be able to speak out against it there as well.

NORRIS: And it wasn't an official trip.

TOWNSEND: Not only was it an official trip, South Africa didn't want to give him a visa. And the only reason they allowed him in is they were fearful that he would become the next president of the United States, and they didn't want to have a bad relationship with the next president. But they certainly had no interest in having him there. They didn't want to have any press about the trip.

NORRIS: And yet, Larry Shore, when he arrived, there was this big group that was waiting for him at the airport. This was a five-day trip. What did that trip represent in South Africa?

SHORE: You know, the 1960s was the very worst decade of apartheid. And this was really an important moment. This is the first time anyone really important from the outside world had come to South Africa, and it really gave people the sense of excitement and hope that maybe now people in the outside world would know what was going on in South Africa and would do something about it. Now, of course, those people who turned out were the English-speaking anti-apartheid white students, and, of course, later on, Robert Kennedy met with Chief Luthuli and went to Soweto. So it was a really exciting moment in a very, very bleak period.

NORRIS: From the film, it's clear that Robert Kennedy felt a strong connection to the country, and there was a speech where he did something...

TOWNSEND: Oh, you have to just...

NORRIS: ...he was talking about...

TOWNSEND: ...you have the speech in front of you.

NORRIS: ...his own country. We do have the speech, and we should listen to it.

TOWNSEND: We should listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th 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.

TOWNSEND: It's stunning because when I went to South Africa in 1985, people could quote that part of the speech. It blew them away because it wasn't somebody coming from outside to say: You're wrong. It's somebody coming to say: I share the same challenges that you have.

SHORE: When I watch the film with people, with audiences, I always watch their faces. And the American ones, they sit back, and they say: Oh, he's talking about South Africa, of course. No, he's talking about the United States. But what he did in that moment as well is he made the connections between the anti-apartheid movement and the civil rights movement in a very brilliant, very simple kind of way. And it's enormously effective, and it's one of our favorite parts in the film.

NORRIS: Kathleen, how old were you when your father took this trip? Do you have memories of this?

TOWNSEND: I have memories of him going and not only that speech but when he was arguing with the students, and the students were saying: Well, you know, in the Bible, there is slavery. And my father said: Well, just think about this. He was trying to see how he could reach out to the kids. And he said: Well, just think about this: What if you die and you go up to heaven, and suppose when you get there you enter the pearly gates, and suppose God is black? And that stunned the kids, because obviously, like many, they create God in their own image, and they had never imagined that a god could be black. And when my father came back from his trip to South Africa, he wrote an article saying "Suppose God is Black."

SHORE: That's right. In Look magazine, it was a wonderful article, a very important article.

TOWNSEND: It was very important for not only South Africa but really for our own country.

NORRIS: Why don't we know much more about this trip? This is sort of a footnote to his legacy.

TOWNSEND: Well, maybe a footnote in the United States, but if you were in South Africa or at least were there 20 years ago, it was the biggest thing that happened in the '60s. It was huge. I mean, obviously, Nelson Mandela had been in prison. So he saw this as a major fight. And he had grown up, you know, in the '50s, of course, the major fight was supposed to be communism, but he has seen that there was more important issues than communism.

NORRIS: And there's this moment in the film where, I guess, you see the legacy of this visit. There's a scene at the beginning where a number of men introduce themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RFK IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID")

KENNEDY KASROKALO: My name is Kennedy Kasrokalo(ph).

KENNEDY ARANIM SENEGAL: My full name is Kennedy Aranim Senegal(ph).

ROBERT KENNEDY MAKALIMA: My name is Robert Kennedy Makalima(ph).

KENNEDY OFELKINOKIBINAKAN: My name is Kennedy Ofelkinokibinakan(ph).

KENNEDY LATA: My name is Kennedy. My surname is Lata(ph). You know you are given a name in honor of an individual who came to oppose the injustices that our people were experiencing at that time.

SHORE: We took out an ad in the Soweto newspaper looking for Kennedys. These are Kathleen's distant cousins.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHORE: And we hired someone with an answering machine, and within about three days, we had 100 phone calls from all over South Africa. And we brought in 40 of these young men. They were all about 37, 38 years old. It was absolutely fascinating.

NORRIS: Kathleen, how does make you feel to know that there - that you have so many cousins?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOWNSEND: Every time I run into somebody named Kennedy, I always call them cousin, and I hope that they're happy with that. You know, it makes me so incredibly proud. It's really, really moving, about what one person can do if they take that responsibility to do it.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Larry Shore, thank you so much to both of you.

TOWNSEND: Thank you, Michele.

SHORE: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and Larry Shore co-directed a new documentary about Robert Kennedy's trip to South Africa in 1966. It's called "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," and it will air on PBS stations later this month. Also, you can look at photos from the trip and read Kennedy's essay "Suppose God is Black" from Look magazine. You can find it at npr.org.

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