My thesis is "Individuals who practice civil disobedience against the government are faced with consequences from the government because disobeying the law weakens and undermines the authority of a...

My thesis is "Individuals who practice civil disobedience against the government are faced with consequences from the government because disobeying the law weakens and undermines the authority of a particular law." How is civil disobedience relevant to the "Day of Affirmation" speech by Robert F. Kennedy?

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huntress | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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First, I just want to say that I love your thesis. It encapsulates a timeless conundrum of democracy. To wit: At what point and how should people disobey laws, and how should the government deal with dissenters? However we slice it, it remains a difficult problem. 

Kennedy's entire Day of Affirmation (or "Ripple of Hope") speech is designed to incite and encourage civil disobedience. He delivered it during the rising civilian condemnation of Apartheid. Even the man who had arranged for him to come speak at the University's Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom, President of the National Union of South Africa Students Ian Robertson, had been banned (under the Apartheid government) from making public appearances or speaking to the media. On his way across the stage to deliver this landmark address, Kennedy passed an empty chair to commemorate Robertson's efforts in the movement. 

Kennedy doesn't use the words "civil disobedience," but he urges it all the same. Although his audience is composed of faculty and students of Cape Town University, his target audience is undeniably the young--the students themselves. He begins by paying his respects to Robertson, commenting that he had met with him in private earlier to thank him for his work and for the invitation to speak, and to present him with a book by President Kennedy called Profiles in Courage--encouraging him to never give up his fight for equality. 

Then he emphasizes the need for any democratic government to allow freedom of speech, to hold governments accountable. To this, he links the right--the power--to be heard. Thus, he clearly condemns the Apartheid government which has denied his friend Robertson the right to appear publicly or work with the media in his fight for equality under the law. He says, "The essential humanity of man can be protected and preserved only where government must answer...to all the people." This is demonstrably not the state of affairs in South Africa as he speaks. 

At the same time, he asserts that the government must have limits on how and to what extent they should have the right to retaliate and control this "freedom of speech":

There may be no interference with the right to worship, but also no interference with the security of the home; no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties on the ordinary citizen by officials high or low; no restriction on the freedom of men to seek education ,or to seek work or opportunity of any kind, so that each man may become all hat he is capable of being. 

Again, knowing the Apartheid government has no such controls in place to protect its citizens, Kennedy speaks to the youth in particular, coaching them on what is required for successful civil disobedience. "It is," he says, "your job, the task of young people of this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief [that whites are inherently superior to blacks] from the civilizations of man." He thus calls upon "common qualities of conscience and indignation" among all such oppressed youths the world over. 

To bring about social change, Kennedy says, one must be aware of certain dangers.

  1. The danger of feelings of futility (not unlike the American "my vote doesn't count" argument). Many individuals have changed the world. Indeed, individuals are the only thing that ever has. 
  2. The danger of expediency (those who believe that their political aims must wait until their immediate necessities are met). 
  3. Timidity, as civil disobedience requires facing the approbation of your peers, "the censure of [one's] colleagues, the wrath of society." 
  4. The fourth danger is comfort (particularly those who wish to fight the good fight, but have much material wealth to lose, who will often choose the easy, comfortable path over the one fraught with danger. 

He ends his speech with the remark that "each of us has his own work to do"; this idea is at the very heart of civil disobedience. It is inherently a grass-roots movement, begun and perpetuated by individuals who eventually band together because they believe in what they stand for. 

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