On opening day of the Speak Truth to Power exhibit, Kerry Kennedy ( Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights President ) hosted a tour of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams' portraits featured in her book, "Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World," Feb. 4 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.
The exhibit showcases Adams' black and white photos of about 50 activist "upstanders" from over 40 countries and six continents who were doing this work at the time of the book's publication in 2000. These "upstanders" have defended justice in many areas including political rights, LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression, honor killings, demilitarization, environmental issues, mental health, children's rights and national self-determination.
The many activists featured include Vaclav Havel, The Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Van Jones, Sister Helen Prejean, Marian Wright Edelman and openly lesbian Patria Jimenez, who was the first LGBT member of Mexico's legislature.
During the tour, Kennedy spoke about this year being the 50th anniversary of her father's assassination and the impact of having the exhibit at this moment. She explained that she met Adams when she worked as an editor at a news photography agency ( where he worked as a photographer ) when she graduated from college. When Kennedy decided to write the book she asked him to take the photos while she did the interviews of the people being profiled.
In speaking about Jimenez, specifically, Kennedy said when the book was published, it was a different time for LGBT rights.
"Patria is an extraordinary woman who was the first openly lesbian legislator in Mexico, and as a result her life was threatened," said Kennedy. "Because of Patria and others like her who were willing to stand up and stand out, life for LGBT people has changed, but we still have a long way to go.
"One of our more recent defenders, who is not in this exhibit, is Frank Mugisha, the leading LGBT activist from Uganda. Uganda passed a law two years ago that made homosexuality punishable with life in prison without parole. We partnered with him on the ground to overturn the law because Uganda was not complying with international norms under the International Declaration of Human Rights and we were successful.
"Someone we talk about in our education program is Jamie Nabozny who, as a young gay man, was terribly abused at his school and he eventually sued the school system successfully. His case changed the law so now the principals can now be held personally libel for failure to protect any student from harassment and I think that is a really strong example of someone who created change."
Following the tour, Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center CEO Susan Abrams welcomed the approximately 300 people in attendance ( including Kennedy's brother, Illinois Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy, and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider ) to hear Kennedy speak about her childhood, the genesis of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Speak Truth to Power book/tour ( including stories about some of the defenders in the exhibit ). Kennedy said she learned a lot about human rights while growing up as number seven of 11 siblings ( seven brothers and three sisters ), drawing laughs from the audience.
She also told stories of the times when her mom Ethel would take her and some of her siblings to visit their dad when he was the United States Attorney General. Kennedy explained that there is an underground tunnel connecting the Department of Justice and the FBI. During one visit, Kennedy said her mom put a note in the FBI's suggestion box in the tunnel that read, "Get a new director." ( At the time, the director was J. Edgar Hoover. )
"This was an early lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power," said Kennedy.
Kennedy explained how the deaths of her uncle ( President John F. Kennedy ), her dad and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. affected her as a young girl. She said life was hard after her dad's death.
"When you lose a parent at a young age [like I did], it leaves the work of love undone," said Kennedy.
Over the course of Kennedy's young life she noted that she came in contact with people who were experiencing human rights abuses. She explained that a good friend of hers was one of the first people in the U.S. to die of AIDS and he was gay and not out of the closet. Kennedy said everyone has those stories because all people experience love and suffering throughout their lives.
Kennedy said it was not until she spent a summer during college working for Amnesty International documenting abuses by U.S. immigration officials against El Salvadoran refugees in 1979 that she fully understood what it means to fight for human rights. She explained that someone gave her a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and after reading it her life changed forever.
"I will leave you with this," said Kennedy. "When Daddy announced he was running for president 50 years ago, he said peace, justice and compassion toward those who suffer is what the United States should stand for."
A Q&A session followed Kennedy's talk.
Abrams urged attendees to #TAKEASTAND against current human rights violations through the museum's Take a Stand Center.
The exhibit will run through June 24. Other public events in conjunction with the exhibit will take place on future dates.
For more information, visit www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/speaktruthtopower/ .