This Mother’s Day, I Cherish My Mother’s Strength and the Gift of Time

Kerry and Ethel Kennedy, the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center which attempts to continue the works of Robert F. Kennedy through Human Rights Awards and Journalism Awards. (Courtesy)

One of my earliest childhood memories is piling into our family’s convertible in the early 1960s—seven kids then, plus a couple of dogs and a football—and my mother driving us to the Department of Justice where my father worked as Uncle Jack’s attorney general.

After visiting my father, we often walked through the secret passageway over to the FBI building’s basement to watch the sharpshooters during target practice.

On this particular day, my mother noticed a suggestion box. In it, she placed an anonymous note, her distinctive handwriting inked in telltale red pen.

Back then, the head of the FBI was J. Edgar Hoover, a man not known for his sense of humor or love of children. He had said that the two main threats to American democracy were Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.

By the time we returned to the Justice building, that note had already made it to Hoover’s office and, from there, to my father’s desk.

Her suggestion? “Get a new FBI director.”

This memory is, without question, one my brothers and sisters and I continue to chuckle about. And yet, as Mother’s Day approaches this year, I’ve found myself contemplating why this story, among all the others, is one I particularly love to tell.

I pondered this as my mother celebrated her 95th birthday in April, surrounded by friends and family. I thought about it as she beat me, handily, at nightly backgammon games in recent months, and kept apprised of the news of the day.

I realized that the funny suggestion box anecdote encapsulates her life’s work and perspective: Using her strong, unabashed voice, maintaining her sense of humor, and always keeping her family and the vision she shared with my father as her core focus.

Come June, she will have lived for 55 years as a single mother of 11 children. My mother has had more tragedy in her lifetime than anyone should. But her spirit has proven indomitable. For the last five and a half decades, I have watched her become a political force in her own right.

Many remember that my dad broke bread with Cesar Chavez.

When he completed his second great fast, my mother was at his side.

In Nov. 1969, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island and held it for 19 months to bring attention to injustices, past and present. My mother flew across the country to join them in solidarity, and she brought along Rafer Johnson, the great 1960 Olympic decathlon winner.

She demonstrated outside the South African and Chinese embassies, joined the Global March to stop Child Labor, pulled tires out of the Anacostia River with former gang members, trekked up mountainous terrain in Mexico to visit unjustly convicted prisoners of conscience, traveled to Haiti to see the effects of the U.S. blocking loans, visited Apartheid-era South Africa, confronted dictator Daniel arap Moi in Nairobi, filled a 757 with relief supplies for African countries, visited orphanages in Angola, and raised millions of dollars for human rights work around the globe.

This constant motion reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advice to Marian Wright Edelman: “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl; but whatever you do, keep on moving.”

Five years ago, although my mother could no longer run, or even walk, she got in her wheelchair to support 600 farm workers in Florida to demand Wendy’s Chairman Nelson Peltz end modern-day slavery by joining the Fair Food Program.

I have an extraordinary mother. Seeing such resilience and strength has allowed me to better recognize and come to understand attributes in the many courageous mothers I’ve met in my own human rights work:

  • The mother of slain LGBTQ+ activist Vicky Hernandez, who refused to give up the fight for justice for her daughter until the Honduran government took accountability for her murder.
  • The mother of slain Colombian activist Nelson Carvajal, who has heartbreaking strength and had to watch each of her grandchildren and children head into exile because their lives are threatened when they demanded accountability.
  • The Polish mothers who have thoughtfully left their own strollers at train stations for Ukrainian refugees to take, and use, after they fled their homeland.

And so many others.

This Mother’s Day, I will hold my mother tight, thankful for the gift of time and her legacy of strength, truth and love that endures.

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Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.