In the early 1800s, when the United States was still young, a British critic named Sydney Smith asked, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?”
Since Mr. Smith was an Englishman, it would be easy to suggest that he was guilty of being a sore loser. But his questions point to an important fact: when the United States was founded, it didn’t know what kind of a nation it was going to be. After all, the leaders and people of the new nation were used to thinking of themselves as subjects of Great Britain. But with the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, they found themselves independent, faced with one of the rarest spectacles in history: a blank canvas.
How to fill that canvas was a tough question, especially in a nation of such diversity. Americans came not only from England, but also from Germany, Holland, Scotland, and even Sweden. Native Americans and African slaves weren’t recognized as citizens, but they were part of the new culture, too. It wasn’t clear what was going to bind these disparate groups together except for a commitment to freedom and some lines on a map.
The one thing that Americans agreed on was their admiration for the culture of ancient Greece—especially the culture of this great city, Athens. For it was here in Athens that democracy was born. It was here that human beings first developed and tested the idea that people were capable of governing themselves without a king or a dictator. It was here that Pericles declared, “Our government does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them.”
Greece certainly served as an example to the first generation of Americans. During the debates over the Constitution, they quoted Pericles, Xenophon ,and Thucydides . They named their cities after Athens, Sparta, and Corinth. They designed their great public buildings in the Greek style. The point of these imitations was unmistakable: at a time of monarchy and empire, America would not copy its neighbors; like the Greeks, it would serve as an example to them.
Of course, American democracy was narrowly defined in the eighteenth century, just as Athenian democracy was narrowly defined in the fifth. Women, slaves, Native Americans, young people, immigrants, Jews, Quakers, Catholics, free African-Americans: at one time or another in my country’s past, each of these groups was denied the right to vote, and many of them continue to be regarded with suspicion, prejudice, and outright hostility today. The story of American history is the story of the struggle to expand the definition of “citizen,” to ensure that every person in the United States has a chance to live a decent and dignified life. This is a struggle that continues in both of our nations, and as long as it continues, we will turn to the wisdom of the ancients to guide us.
As many of you know, my father, Robert F. Kennedy, dedicated his life to that struggle. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that his favorite writers were ancient Greek poets and playwrights like Sophocles and Aeschylus. In the Greek tragedies, and in the stories of leaders like Pericles, he found echoes of his own experience: of the fight to build and preserve a decent society; of the inevitability of suffering as part of life; and of our remarkable ability to overcome adversity.
He quoted the Greeks in his two greatest speeches. The first came in June of 1966, a little more than 49 years ago,when he traveled to South Africa at the invitation of a group of students who opposed Apartheid. Hoping to inspire his audience to continue their long and thankless struggle, he reminded them of what they were fighting for: the protection of and respect for human rights and human dignity, which he called “the essential differences between us and Nazi Germany, as they were between Athens and Persia.” Later, he urged his audience to take personal responsibility for improving the world by quoting Pericles: “If Athens shall appear great to you,” he said,“consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.” My father shared with the Greeks the belief that improving the world is everyone’s duty, and he had little patience for apathy or cynicism. He appreciated the fact that our modern word “idiot” comes from the ancient Greek term for someone who declined to participate in public life.
Robert Kennedy found inspiration in the Greeks, but he also found comfort. On the night of April 4, 1968, he was scheduled to make a campaign stop in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. On his way there, he received the awful news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. City officials urged him to cancel his appearance, saying they couldn’t guarantee his safety in the event of a riot. But he insisted on keeping his appointment. He had no speech prepared; instead, he drew on his own experience of suffering, and he spoke of Martin Luther King’s life as an example for every American. At the speech’s climax, he quoted Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Many other American cities burned that night, but Indianapolis remained calm.
The Greek poets and statesmen moved my father with their courage and their love of country. They suggested that we can make sense of a world full of senseless suffering. They recognized that the end of civilization is not to enrich one person, but to empower all people.
These are lessons we need today more than ever. Dictators rule with single-minded cruelty in North Korea and Zimbabwe. Corruption and division threaten the triumph of democracy in South Africa and Russia. ISIS continues its expansion in the Middle East, causing untold misery and destruction. Women are everywhere treated as inferior. The Western democracies are losing the trust of their citizens, and inequality is on the rise.
What can we as individuals do against so many setbacks? In the face of so much opposition, how can we continue the work of expanding freedom and dignity not only to all Greeks or to all Americans, but to all people, everywhere?
About twenty years ago, I asked that question of 50 of the world’s bravest human rights defenders for my book Speak Truth To Power. None of them claimed to have an answer to the world’s ills, of course, but they all said that they couldn’t stand by and watch while people suffered. As Pericles said of the ancient Athenians, each of these incredible defenders understood their duty—not as heroes, but as human beings.
Consider, for instance, Marina Pisklakova. Marina is Russia’s leading women’s rights activist. She has singlehandedly transformed Russia’s attitudes toward gender violence, starting a conversation where just two decades ago there was none. The truly amazing thing is that when Marina started her first crisis hotline, she was a scientist, not an activist. She had no background, no training, no funding, no colleagues. “I felt hopeless and helpless,” Marina said, “but I knew what I had to do.”
In interview after interview, I heard a version of this story of ordinary people finding themselves unable to ignore their conscience. It was such an inspiring message, and an idea occurred to me: What if we could teach young people to be human rights defenders? And what better way to do so than through these incredible stories? Each of us, but especially young people, tend to excuse ourselves with doubts. We say things like “I could make a difference if I were older,” or “I would speak out if I were braver.” But reading these interviews shows us that change is made by people just like you and me, with fears and hopes and dreams just ours. If we could bring that lesson to young people, we could transform our communities.
And so the Speak Truth To Power curriculum was born. We created lesson plans based on the lives of these remarkable women and men, each one designed to empower students to identify as human rights defenders. When students study Wangari Maathai, they don’t learn about environmental rights as something that happens elsewhere in the world—they learn that they can protect the environment in their own communities by planting trees or cleaning up streams. When they study Kailash Satyarthi, they aren’t told that child labor is someone else’s problem to solve—they are challenged to start asking where their clothes and shoes are made, and by whom.
The effects have been transformative. Students who have studied the Speak Truth To Power curriculum have stood up to bullies, challenged their local government to start a recycling program, and handed out fair-trade chocolates on Halloween. One law student who studied Speak Truth To Power decided that rather than become a high-powered corporate attorney, she wanted to work on education policy in the United States. One teacher in Cambodia who used the curriculum said, “Before the training, if I asked a student a question, and they said they did not wish to answer, then I wouldn’t push anymore. After the training, I encouraged students to stand up and speak and be willing to make mistakes, and they do.”
Plutarch once wrote that “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” The goal of Speak Truth To Power is not to give our young people facts that they will soon forget, but to ignite in them a lifelong commitment to human rights. By learning to speak up in the classroom now, these students are preparing to speak out in the board room or the Senate later. We seek nothing less than to create a generation of students committed to working for justice when it’s their turn to start a business, or take over a classroom, or run for office. Giving our children the tools to be human rights defenders is the surest path to a better future.
I’m pleased to announce that Greece has chosen to make that investment in its children. Thanks to the hard work of Marianna Vardinoyannis, her colleagues at her foundation, and Minister of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs Aristides Baltas, the Speak Truth To Power curriculum will soon be available in Greek classrooms. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is excited for this new partnership, and grateful for the opportunity to bring its curriculum to the birthplace of democracy.
Each of us who chooses to defend human rights is enlisting in the defining conflict of our times. It is not a conflict of weapons, though some who oppose us rely on violence. It is not a conflict of religion, though some who oppose us claim to be acting in the name of God. Rather, it is a conflict over something far more fundamental: the value of a human being. It is a conflict perhaps best illustrated by comparing the fate of the majestic structure on the hill above us with that of an equally majestic city to the north, in Syria. Both the Acropolis and the ancient city of Palmyra are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Both are testament to humanity’s capacity for creating beauty. Both are treasures that belong not to one group of people, but to all people, as reminders of the gentle civilization we all seek to build.
But while you in Greece regard the Acropolis as a treasure to be protected and celebrated, ISIS sees the ancient city of Palmyra as a territory to be conquered and plundered. ISIS—and groups like it around the world, from Boko Haram to separatists in Ukraine—have no respect for the project that began here in Athens centuries ago. They care nothing for the rights that Americans fought for in 1776 AD, and that the Greeks fought for in 490 BC. They would undo all the progress we’ve made toward a just and peaceful world.
We cannot allow this to happen. As Pericles urged his people on the hill above us so long ago, let us learn our duty: let us continue the hard and necessary work of expanding human rights to all people.