We must hold on to hope

We must also work for profound, systemic change

WHEN WE THINK about our own personal lives — or the life of our nation — hope is an essential ingredient. With it, everything seems possible. Without it, bumps in the road loom like mountains.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu told us that, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King said: “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”

Fifty-two years ago this week, as a young man, I found myself nearly bereft of hope as the second of two of my personal heroes was assassinated just after scoring the political victory that might have vaulted him to the presidency.

Robert F. Kennedy, young, committed to change and to social and economic justice – his 1968 campaign carried with it the promise of an America where everyone would be equal, of winding down the Vietnam War, and of restoring to America the sense of pride and optimism that existed during his fallen brother’s presidency.

On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy delivered one of the most remarkable speeches in American political history, informing an inner-city Indianapolis audience that Dr. King had been assassinated and noting: “It is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”

While no two situations or eras are the same, more than a half century later, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd — many may again ask: What kind of nation are we? Equally, as a result of the gruesome attack and what we have subsequently witnessed — particularly from those who have failed to lead and heal as RFK so instinctively did — hope may be in short supply.

Clearly, the unspeakable act in Minneapolis comes at a time when our nation and world are still facing an unprecedented pandemic and when many are suffering from personal and economic loss — and are struggling to see the path forward. And, to be clear, the suffering is concentrated in communities of color.

How do we move forward?

At times like this, perhaps the best course is to look to foundational concepts, whether they are spiritual or philosophical.

When he spoke in Indianapolis on that painful night, Robert Kennedy said: “We can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with … compassion and love.”

At the University of Massachusetts, I know that our students, faculty and staff embrace their responsibility to join together to advance our mission of transformation and of creating a better future for each other, for the Commonwealth, and the nation. Ultimately, we should be measured, not just by creating a talented workforce, but by graduating citizens who actively advance the constitutional aspiration of equality under the law for all, which our nation has yet to achieve.

At this moment, I am also finding consolation in thinking back to that young man, growing up in Lowell, who was nearly stripped of hope when Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, only to see Robert Kennedy shot on June 5, 1968, and die a day later.

I think back to those days and feel that sense of emptiness and futility — and realize that a year later, two American astronauts walked on the moon. In the years to follow, Americans built computers and launched the digital revolution; major civil rights and environmental protection legislation was signed into law; and medical science tamed fearsome diseases and deciphered most of the human genome. Finally, 40 years after the anguishing year of 1968, a young US senator from Illinois, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, was elected president of the United States.

As my friend and former congressional colleague John Lewis has said: “Never lose that sense of hope.”

Meet the Author

Marty Meehan

President, University of Massachusetts
At this difficult moment in our history, we must hold onto hope — and we must work for and bring about profound, systemic change. As real change will allow hope to take root and truly flourish.

Marty Meehan is president of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.