By Patricia Bates
NASHVILLE, TN — Through former UN diplomat Andrew Young, Jr., and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a cleaner, safer world is possible 50 years after the idealism of 1968 ended with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, Sr.
“More black kids are dying now of brain tumors than bullets,” said Kennedy, of the cancer infiltrating the drinking water of African Americans in poverty-stricken regions of the U.S. “As many as 48 percent of them have lead poisoning, and tests have shown that they have lost five to 10 points from their I.Q.’s.”
“Water is going to be more important than oil in our future,” Young explained April 19 on a panel hosted at Woolworth on 5th by the nonprofit organization Tennessee Riverkeeper. ““This is more than Civil Rights, it’s about Human Rights. We must get to this brain tumor issue. Lead is dulling their thinking. That is your next documentary film,” he told Kennedy.
On the anniversary of the 1968 murders, Young and Kennedy have lived to tell for five decades since about the impact that nonviolence can have in America. The killing of youth through pollution and poverty is just their latest cause for social justice in our democracy.
Young, who rushed to Dr. King’s side as he lay bleeding on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and Kennedy, as a 14-year-old at the hospital on June 5, 1968, when his Democratic Presidential candidate dad passed away after being mortally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, have forever bonded in their trauma. Barry Scott recited the historic speech at this fundraiser that Bobby Kennedy, Jr. made in Indianapolis to calm mourners after King’s death.
“My most poignant memory of my father’s funeral was the train ride to New York,” said Kennedy. “At every train station, thousands of blacks and whites were lined up—from Catholic nuns and priests to the military. And there was Andrew Young with thousands from the shanties and shacks of the Poor People’s Campaign.”
“Four out of five toxic waste dumps are now in minority neighborhoods,” explained Kennedy. “Throughout my entire career, I’ve seen our environmental problems being thrown onto the backs of the poor. It seems as if when we have something bad to get rid of in society, we don’t send it to Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side. We put it in places like Harlem and the South Bronx.”
Tennessee Riverkeeper enforces laws and educates the public about watersheds. Kennedy was introduced by his godson and its founder, David Whiteside, the great-nephew of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who ruled in cases against segregation in Alabama. As president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Kennedy has been joined by more than 320 groups in his work from six continents.
Three special guests were recognized at the luncheon from the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville: Ernest Patton, arrested as a Freedom Rider and expelled from what’s now Tennessee State University for his protests, Kwame Leo Lillard, an organizer of downtown sit-ins, and King Hollands, one of the first blacks integrated in 1954 into Father Ryan High School. The moderator of the discussion was John M. Seigenthaler, whose father and The Tennessean publisher John L. Seigenthaler, gave his helmet in the 1960s after a beating by the KKK to Kennedy’s dad, then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Jr. for his office.
As a negotiator and strategist for Civil Rights, Young was jailed twice in 1964 and 1965 as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A former pastor, he ministered to youth in 1957 in New York on a CBS Radio show for the National Council of Churches. At the urging of his first wife, Jean, he quit his job, sold their house, and moved to the South that year.
“I’ve been following the Spirit ever since, and this is where it has led me,” said Young. “The roughest period of my life was around the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. Then, we all began to wake up and continue the movement.”
Young praised the legacy of Dr. King, which continued at the March for Our Lives in Washington, with his nine-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King, on March 24 after school shootings in Parkland, Fla. “I have a dream enough is enough,” she said. “And, that this should be a gun-free world, period.” The National Rifle Association is “losing ground,” said Young here, with assault weapons being taken out of Dick’s Sporting Goods and WalMart banning sales to under 21-year-olds.
“A movement never surfaces until it has a good, solid foundation,” said Young, of fighting the prejudice and violence. “If Alabama and Georgia can change their world,” he said of the 1960s, “then we’re not far behind.”
“Every nation has a darker and lighter side,” observed Kennedy. America did not radically transform with the election of President Donald Trump, because negative political rhetoric always appeals to the Semitic and xenophobic, he noted. Through environmentalism and Civil Rights activism, Kennedy said “we must see ourselves as more noble” than racism.