DRISCOLL: The University should create a permanent memorial to Robert F. Kennedy

Fifty years after his assassination, Grounds still remains without a permanent memorial to this alumnus who left an indelible mark on politics and civil rights

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A permanent memorial to Kennedy would not only seek to honor his legacy but also challenge present and future generations at U.Va. to live up to the ideals for which he stood.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Board of Visitors earlier this year approved a measure to dedicate the new upper-class student residence hall on Brandon Avenue after the late Julian Bond, a history professor at the University and one of the most prominent figures within the civil rights movement. In many ways this decision is reflective of a much larger effort by the University over the past several years to highlight a greater share of its history in the memorials and structures dedicated across Grounds.

And yet in spite of this progress, one name in particular that has yet to be honored is Robert F. Kennedy, who was a graduate of the University’s school of law.  Although Kennedy’s career in public service was tragically cut short, it undoubtedly left a lasting impact on American politics and society a whole, particularly in relation to the advancement of the civil rights movement, the response to the War in Vietnam and the enactment of anti-poverty measures. Furthermore, Kennedy is also remembered for the courage which he demonstrated in picking up the torch of his slain brother, President John F. Kennedy, while also working to forge a sense of unity in a country that by the late 1960s was increasingly fragmented. 

In short, this legacy and call to public service are things which every member of the University community should seek to emulate and should be proudly celebrated across Grounds. In an era of increased polarization and civil unrest, as was illustrated by the violence that took place in this community in August of 2017, it is imperative that we look at similar struggles in our nation's history, such as the era through which Kennedy lived, in order to move forward as a society. 

In today’s collective memory, Kennedy is oftentimes remembered for the sense of hope he imparted in millions of Americans who envisioned a different nation, one which transcended beyond the racial division and social unrest that had become mainstream by the late 1960s. Furthermore, Kennedy’s passion and zeal coupled with his willingness to break with members of his own party and even with President Lyndon B. Johnson on a host of issues earned him the admiration and respect of many segments of the country which had previously been alienated from the political process for generations.

Likewise, Kennedy’s political and moral beliefs, which were heavily influenced by his devout Catholic faith, enabled him to make common cause with civil rights and social leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. From this, Kennedy was able to assemble a broad coalition of supporters both during his time in office as well as in his 1968 campaign for the presidency due to the appeal of his message with religious and ethnic minorities, poor and working-class Americans and young voters.

Ultimately, while his campaign would be woefully cut short by an assassin’s bullet in June of 1968, his calls for unity and resilience in the midst of political and social upheaval have since gone on to inspire countless generations of leaders and public officials alike, including former Vice President Joe Biden, civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and even the University’s current Dean of Students Allen Groves.

In light of Kennedy’s impact and enduring level of inspiration to others, it seems only fitting that the University should provide this alumnus with a permanent memorial here on Grounds. As of right now, the only tributes which the University has made to Kennedy’s legacy are in the form of programs and awards given to graduates from the Law School, the most notable of which are the Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellowships and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Public Service

These awards, while seeking to encourage students to live up to the ideals and beliefs that Kennedy himself imparted, fail to be inclusive of the entire University community. Likewise, across Grounds, there are still several buildings which bear the names of individuals connected with troubling aspects of this nation’s history, including eugenics and white supremacy. For these reasons in particular, it is even more imperative that the University should seek to dedicate a lasting memorial to Kennedy as his legacy is one that can be celebrated by all members of our community.

Ultimately, if the events of the past several years have demonstrated nothing else, it is that Kennedy’s vision for a better America still remain largely unfinished. A permanent memorial to this Wahoo would not only seek to honor his inspiring legacy but also challenge present and future generations of this University to live up to the ideals for which he stood.

Thomas Driscoll is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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