Posted by: JanF | April 20, 2011

"A tiny ripple of hope"

I am still buzzing about President Obama’s speech last week where he laid out the Democratic Party’s Progressive Vision of America.

The buzzing is probably a good thing, as one hopes that speeches are more than something dashed off on a lined notepad, transposed to a teleprompter and then dropped into the bit bucket.

Speeches can contain words to live by, words that call us to action for an important cause and words that connect to our deepest feelings about fairness and compassion.

I love words. Words are important to me. When I come across a word that I have not seen or heard in a while, it is like spotting an old friend in a crowd.

The words of some of our greatest speakers continue to resonate years after those who spoke them are gone. Franklin Delano Roosevelt make some remarkable speeches and speeches which, unfortunately, could be given now as many of his warnings went unheeded.

I happened across a snippet from a speech by Robert F. Kennedy on the wall of a public building the other day. Here are the words:

“Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends 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.”

The speech was titled Day of Affirmation and was given by then Senator Kennedy at the University of Capetown, South Africa on June 6, 1966, two years to the day before he was killed in Los Angeles during his presidential campaign.

He was speaking at the behest of the National Union of South African Students which he described as a group working for “the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — principles which embody the collective hopes of men of good will around the globe”.

He starts here:

Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. […] This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind

Then he lays out the four dangers.

First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. […] “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 second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people across the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspiration, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — 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.

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. 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.

For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is 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.

The speech was for a different time and different challenges but a call to change the world, a call to work to better our country and our fellow citizen’s lives is no different in 2011 than it was 45 years ago.

Speeches can call us to do great things or they can be “just words”. Let’s transform President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s Progressive Vision from words into reality by continuing to remind each other and those who will vote in 2012 exactly what the vision means:

We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made those liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what’s required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

The ripple of hope starts with us and it can transform our country into the community envisioned in that speech.

Great Speeches is a series on speeches by American politicians.

(A version of this was originally posted on 04/20/2011 at BPI Campus)