This month, most U.S. colleges and universities send forth their graduating seniors into the world with high hopes and big speeches. In honor of these many momentous commencement ceremonies, I present words spoken in 1968 to a crowd of 14,000-plus college students — words that are as fitting now as they were then:
You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have ‘the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future.’ I urge you to learn the harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our own misguided policies — and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best, hope of man. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. In these next eight months, we are going to decide what this country will stand for — and what kind of men we are. So I ask for your help, in the cities and homes of this state, into the towns and farms: contributing your concern and action, warning of the danger of what we are doing — and the promise of what we can do. I ask you, as tens of thousands of young men and women are doing all over this land, to organize yourselves, and then to go forth and work for new policies — work to change our direction — and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our own hearts, and all around the world.
Excerpted from a lecture given by Robert F. Kennedy to students at Kansas State University on March 18, 1968 — two days after he announced his candidacy for U.S. President. His full speech can be read at PBS’s American Experience website.