Thursday, January 01, 2009

RFK Memorial in St James Park

There are two memorials in St James Park. Both of them honor popular leaders who were assassinated in their prime.

President William McKinley gave a speech in the park in early May 1901. He was shot and killed four months later at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo New York. A few years later the city of San Jose marked the spot where he'd made his speech with a large statue.

Senator Robert Kennedy made a Democratic presidental primary campaign speech at St James Park in March 1968. About four months later he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, minutes after giving a similar speech at the Ambassador hotel. That same year San Jose added the second memorial to the park.

In June of last year, there were many tributes to Robert Kennedy marking the 40th anniversary of his death. A San Jose Mercury News article covered the speech he'd made here and mentioned the memorial in St James park. That was the first I'd ever heard of it. The report didn't include a picture of the memorial and to my surprise a quick probe with Google didn't turn up any pictures on the web. I decided that I'd make my contribution to posterity and post some photos of my own. And then I forgot all about it.

Our family didn't travel or schedule anything time consuming for the 2008 Christmas Holidays and so, with the luxury of truly free time on my hands, I headed down to St James park with my son Stephen to do something about taking those pictures. The park is small green square flanked on all sides by historic buildings and an impressive row of palm trees, and bisected by Second street and the light rail station.

The memorial is parked all by itself in the south-western corner. It's not much to look at it. The circular concrete base supports a hulking lectern that's backed by a drab semicircular wall, roughly eight feet high. From a distance it looks like a band shell.

There's a plaque centered high up on the back wall with a famous line from George Bernard Shaw that Kennedy often repeated.

It's a nice bit of wordplay but it's not the quote I would have picked. My favorite quote comes from an answer RFK gave to a group of medical students at the University of Indiana. He'd been talking about the importance of giving all Americans, including the poor, the opportunity to go to college, even medical school. He was asked where the money was going to come from? Most accounts of this event indicate that he just replied firmly: "From You." The recently published book by Thurston Clarke called "The Last Campaign" recounts exactly what was said:

Another [medical student] raised the issue of funding again, saying, "All these programs sound very fine and nice and all that, but where's the money going to come from?"

As at Columbia, Kennedy had finally had enough. "From you!" he barked, pointing finger at the student who had asked the question. He pointed at the youth with the Reagan balloon and said, "From you," then went around the hall, jabbing his finger and shouting, "From you!... You!... You!... You!"

The fact that the obduracy of a group from Kennedy's own elite caste would cause him to become so passionately unhinged is well worth remembering. Those are his own words, not scripted or speechwritten. Unfortunately this vignette works better as a story than as a pithy quote. It's not obvious how to translate it into a format that would suit a bronze plaque, although I think it would be worth trying.

St James park is on nobodies' short list of worthy San Jose sightseeing destinations because it's a home to the area's homeless and transients. When I visited, there was a crowd of them just a short distance from the RFK memorial. Experienced passersby gave them a wide berth and avoided eye contact. As they walked by I'm sure some of them wondered about the poverty on display, and where those people were going to sleep or find food, and where was the money going to come from, to pay for all of that.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home