Remembering Bobby Kennedy

The event at the Kennedy Center this week for Senator Ted Kennedy reminded me of the time that Bobby Kennedy came to Ethiopia back in the 60s.

As I have written elsewhere, here is a little known story about Bobby Kennedy and the time he met up with PCVs in Asmara, Eritrea. We go back to the summer of ’66. Bobby had been to South Africa where he was a huge success with college students, and given his famous “Ripple of Hope Speech” that contains one of the most quoted paragraph in political speech making. The speech was written by Richard Goodwin and Adam Walinsky and delivered on June 6, 1966 in Cape Town.

The famous paragraph went this way: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or stikes 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.”

Traveling north, Bobby and his wife, Ethel, a few aides, and several press people from the U.S. arrived in Addis Ababa, and here Kennedy met with American officials, plus PCVs, on the lawn of the American Embassy, and early the next morning traveled to Asmara, Eritrea where the Ethopian Airlines plane touched down and there was another reception for Kennedy at the airport.

Invited to the airport were the ‘officials’ of the U.S. government stationed in Asmara [at the time we had an important military station in Asmara.] Meeting the senator were the heads of various in-country missions stationed in Asmara. Also invited to the early breakfast meeting/reception was the late George Blackmon, the APCD in Asmara, and a 1962-64 Ethiopian PCV.

When George arrived at the small Asmara airport he found a hand-full of PCVs clustred together outside of the building. They had biked out of town before teaching their morning classes in hopes of meeting Kennedy. A number of them were from New York, Kennedy’s home senate state. They told George that the guards wouldn’t let them inside to meet Kennedy. They weren’t on any official list of Americans. George, God bless him, told them to wait.

When Blackmon got inside he joined the reception line to shake hands with Kennedy. George was a big, likeable guy from Texas, over 6-6, outgoing and engaging. At the time he must have been 25 years old. When he shakes hands with Bobby, he tells Kennedy that a group of PCVs are outside the building and aren’t allowed inside to meet him. He tells Kennedy that they had biked out to see  him and he asks Bobby if he might “just step outside for a moment” to say  hello to the Volunteers.

Kennedy says, “take me to the Volunteers.”

So, George leads Bobby out of the reception, out of the airport building, out onto the lawn where Bobby sits down on the grass with the Volunteers and talks to them about being Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia while they wait for the plane to refuel. Kennedy leaves the ‘official Americans’ inside the building. Let me tell you: the U.S. Embassy folks were not happy!

And that was Bobby Kennedy. It’s another example of what the Kennedys thought of the Peace Corps.

12 Comments

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  • Simon–I don’t have any, but I’m sure that somewhere in the Peace Corps Ethiopia World there are one or two photos. Of course, if that happened today, we would have the whole event on youtube!
    John

  • I hope so too. Must be great memory. I myself did not know Bobby visited Eritrea.
    Some of the kagnew people might have some photos. Thanks again:)

  • I won’t go so far as to say Kennedy visited Eritrea, what with just this brief refueling stop. Another brief addition to this Kennedy visit: It happened that a PCV woman was on the same flight out of Africa. She was going home to the US on medial leave, and she sent a note up to first class, where Bobby and Ethel were sitting, saying that she was from NYC and a PCV. Kennedy came back and introduced himself to the Volunteer somewhere over the Sudan. Then when they stopped again, this time in Beirut, Ethel asked her to go with her to the gift shop at the airport.. Arriving in New York, Bobby went out of his way to say goodbye to the PCV and to wish her well in the Peace Corps.

  • I heard about this visit from my friends Frank and Sue Doolittle, who were stationed in Asmara during their first year in Ethiopia (65-66) and who got to meet Bobby. I know it was a very meaningful event for them. The next year, they transferred to my town of Jimma in the south.

    On another visit, in January of 1968, I remember well the visit of Hubert Humphrey to Addis where he participated in several events that included PCVs, including a wedding reception for one couple who just got married. He also spoke to volunteers as a group, where Vietnam came up. While he defended it, it seemed to me he was somewhat doubtful about the whole enterprise.

    I can tell more stories about that visit by Humphrey, but that can wait for when that might come up in the future.

  • Please pass out the shovels next time for those of us who need to wade through the piles of “demi-god” adulation and sad old PCV’s who are lost in the freakin’ 60’s.
    I’m sorry to be a discordant voice in this love-fest, but that is my natural reaction to this sad series of reminiscences. I know I don’t have to read John’s “babbles” but since someone recommended it to me, I thought I’d give it a look. I hope it gets better than a site who’s demographic seems to be a bunch of 60’s volunteers that can’t transfer any meaning to the present.
    Imagine! A politician actually sat down on the grass with lowly fellow Americans.
    Bobby Kennedy has been dead for four decades. There are 40 years worth of volunteers who didn’t grow up programmed to think they lived through Camelot. Please try to be more relevant.

  • ajkrik–that’s a good point. I have to agree. My problem is that the Kenndys are my frame of reference for this period. I’ll be posting more items that touch, perhaps, on your generaton. Thanks for your comment.

  • Thank you.
    The volunteers sitting on that grass are my frame of reference. Those people, their humility, and their adventurous spirit are what motivated me to be a volunteer in the 70’s and in the 80’s. I’d enjoy hearing about their lives and experiences. I’d enjoy seeing how volunteer ideals and experiences have changed. How the world has changed and how it hasn’t.
    I appreciate your response.

  • I am reminded of a visit to Africa from a different Washington emissary. My Libya group arrived in Tripoli in October 1968. I had already absentee voted with great anticipation in the Humphrey vs. Nixon race. Within weeks word came of the Nixon win. Psychic misery set in, but I continued to teach my 5th grade classes over the months.
    Then, in May 1969, shortly after his appointment by Nixon as the third Peace Corps Director, Joseph Blatchford arrived in my village. Mine was thought to be a perfect example of a Peace Corps site. I was alone with about 300 villagers amidst olive groves far off the main roads. He was sent there as part of the whirlwind get acquainted tour he was making of Libya, Kenya, and Iran to assess Peace Corps efforts. He was friendly enough, but I remember most how I felt when he acted so awfully removed as he kept speaking English directly to the villagers. At one point he said to several of the men, “The dry weather here is just like the weather in my home in Southern California.” I had some trouble simultaneously translating this, but I did my best in the local Arabic dialect.
    I wished the director of my organization could have showed a little more charm and interest, and that he would have asked the men some questions about their lives rather than chat about the weather back home. How I wish now, even if I wasn’t thinking it at the time, it could instead have been Bobby Kennedy, or his appointee, who was my visitor that day.

  • pjakre–if you have the interest or the time to write a short essay about your time as a PCV, perhaps about some incident that happened to you, or what you learned overseas, some insight, for example, that you might have on the whole Peace Corps movement, we would love to see it. I’m thinking of adding a ‘guest column’ to the list of bloggers we have. One of the hopes for this site, besides it being a resource for the Peace Corps Community, is to create a place on the Internet where RPCVs, PCVs and others can share stories and ideas based on their experiences in the Peace Corps.

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