By Matt McGregor
JACKSON, Miss.—At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Oct. 2, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke of the nation’s old wounds—and new—while addressing his determination to move the country forward if elected president.
“Every nation, like every individual, has a darker side or a lighter sight, and the easiest thing for a politician to do is to appeal to our anger, to our greed, to our darker angels, to our self-interest,” Mr. Kennedy said.
He recounted the 1968 presidential candidacy of his late father, then U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who sought to help communities transcend tribalism by pushing aside the temptation to advance at the cost of others.
The polarization witnessed today—fueled by a fear that has hindered critical thinking—is not unlike what it was in the 60s when his father strived to speak not to the tribalism but to a shared vision of the nation as a community on a “noble adventure,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“All of us have the ability to go either way; it’s part of our humanity,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do during this campaign is to find that middle ground that rests on the values that we all share in common rather than appealing to those narrow little issues that keep us all apart.”
A Time to Engage
The event was sponsored by the National Apostolic Christian Leadership Conference (NACLC) and Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights (MPVR).
NACLC Executive Director Rev. David Tipton introduced the event by speaking about the censorship that has silenced those like Mr. Kennedy who have gone against the government-ordained narrative.
“When the only ideas permitted are from one side, any prospect of intellectual discourse dies,” Rev. Tipton said. “Now, more than ever, it’s crucial for people of faith to actively engage in public discourse.”
Sitting passively on the sidelines is no longer an option, he said.
“When the faith community steps back, the government steps in,” he said. “For too much and too long, we have left politics to politicians, preferring to stay in the four walls of our churches, hoping we would be left alone. That approach has not worked. Now is the time for the voices of people of faith to be heard in the halls of government.”
MaryJo Perry, president of MPVR, spoke of her own fight for medical freedom beginning with her vaccine-injured son in 2008, which grew into advocacy for informed consent.
“We believe in the basic human right to medical self-determination,” she said. “We believe that the family is the first institution ordained by God with parents as the final authority in medical decision-making for their own children.”
Though frequently ridiculed and ignored, MPVR persisted in a state where lawmakers boasted number one in childhood vaccination rates.
“They don’t brag how they achieved that status by throwing kids like my Jacob under the bus, and they don’t brag about how they trampled constitutional rights of Mississippians,” she said.
When the COVID vaccine mandates were looming in 2020, MPVR grew exponentially, she said, and on April 15, 2023, the organization secured a victory when a federal judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a child’s religious exemption for vaccines to attend school.
“I recently had a state leader say to me, ‘But we’re here because of vaccines,’” she said. “No, we’re not. We’re here today because of the miracle of maternal instinct.”
There is a danger in ignoring that maternal instinct, she said.
“And medicine has sought to usurp that instinct by saying, ‘We in the white coats know better,’” she said.
Mr. Kennedy, she said, is one of the few who’s been listening to mothers, unafraid of the criticism it has brought.
“Not only does he bring compassion, conversation, and moral courage, he prioritizes healing the giant chasm in our country between political parties and ideologies,” she said.
Parallels to the Past
Mr. Kennedy, an environmental attorney and founder of Children’s Health Defense, spoke to his discovery of a huge divide between what the scientific establishment was saying about vaccine safety and what was being reported by mothers.
He also spoke of his and his family’s close ties with Civil Rights leaders like James Meredith and the late Charles Evers and how his father’s 1967 visit to the Magnolia state impacted him.
“My father came home, and he said to us, ‘I was in a home today in a tarpaper shack that was smaller than the size of this dining room, and there were two families living in it,’” he said. “He said the children had only one meal a day, and he said when you get older, I want you to help people like that.”
Drawing parallels to then and now, Mr. Kennedy said his father went up against his own party that had the backing of the media as it does today.
“He was regarded as a hopeless underdog from the beginning,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Though he didn’t believe he could win the election, Mr. Kennedy said, his father, who was against President Johnson’s Vietnam War, had to do what he thought was right.
“He felt if he stayed on the sidelines and had to pretend that he was supporting Johnson, it would degrade him morally,” Mr. Kennedy said.
But his campaign was cut short in June 1968 when—like his brother President John F. Kennedy in 1963—Sen. Kennedy was assassinated.
At 14, Mr. Kennedy was a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.
He recalled a black woman who, with others, was singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic when she collapsed on the stairs as he passed her.
“She waved a handkerchief at my father’s casket, and she said, ‘Well, you’ve done your best; you’ve done your best,’” he said. “It was one of the most moving and emotional testimonies.”
On Healing the Divide
Ron Matis, the political director for the Mississippi District of the United Pentecostal Church, posed questions to Mr. Kennedy for the event, asking how he proposes to heal the divide in the current polarized society.
Mr. Kennedy answered by referring to the most recent Republican debate he watched “with a lot of interest.”
“The issues that they were talking about were old issues, the kind of shibboleths and platitudes that tend to divide people,” he said.
The issue of most importance to him, he said, is the corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is stripping the American middle class of its wealth and equity.
“If the king and queen look out over the balustrades of their castle and they see that their subjects are all fighting each other, they go back to their feast and pop champagne corks because they know that as long as they’re fighting each other, nobody’s coming over the wall to get them,” he said. “My purpose during this campaign is to stop fighting each other and go across the wall.”
He criticized the Democratic Party for its pro-war support of Ukraine and its corporate entanglements.
“It has an antipathy toward the American middle class,” he said. “I don’t think it was an accident when Hillary Clinton referred to people as deplorable. I see that sentiment a lot. It’s become a party that is opposed to freedom of speech, and that is tolerant of government-enforced censorship.”
Mr. Kennedy addressed the many constitutional violations that took place during COVID which began with censorship.
“The Constitution was written for hard times,” he said. “Freedom of Speech protects all speech, including religious speech. If we want the central value of our nation to survive, we’ve got to remind ourselves of that fact. We’ve got to start fortifying these rights.”
On Listening to Others and Bringing Order to Chaos
Mr. Matis referred to the media’s pejorative characterization of Mr. Kennedy as a conspiracy theorist.
“It’s really been an effort on the part of the media to frame you and define you, and so speaking to all these people today, how would you define yourself?” he asked.
For Mr. Kennedy, staying spiritually centered and adaptable to new ideas is important in staying immune to ad hominem attacks.
“If you show me a fact that shows that I’m wrong about something, I’m going to admit that I’m wrong and I’m going to change my worldview to accommodate what the actual evidence says,” he explained. “It’s what I do as an attorney. It’s what I do as a husband, a father, and a human being. We all have to keep open minds and retain our capacity for critical thinking all the time.”
Listening to others is also important, he said.
“I have to listen to everybody around me because when another person is talking to me, ultimately, it’s God talking to me through other people,” he said.
Though it may all seem hopeless, Mr. Kennedy alluded to the myth of Sisyphus, a story about a man who was cursed by the Greek gods for cheating death and given the punishment of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down for him to start over.
Existentialists like Albert Camus viewed Sisyphus as a hero of the absurd, a representative of the small player within a large, chaotic world.
While it could be assumed that he was miserable, another interpretation is that Sisyphus was, in fact, happy because he had been given a duty, Mr. Kennedy said.
“By doing your duty, you bring order to that chaos, and you bring meaning to your own lives,” he said. “For me, when people put these slings and arrows toward me, I try to process it that way and just say pain and disapproval are the touchstones of spiritual growth. You have to use that adversity that comes at you in your life to try to build character?