On April 4, 1968, the night Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death, Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency, climbed up on a flatbed truck at a rally in an African American section of Indianapolis.
“Do they know about Martin Luther King?” he asked someone. Not everyone did. This was before 24-hour cable news and the internet. News traveled slowly compared with today.
“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight,” he said. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”
In his brief speech that followed, Kennedy asked a stricken people to rise above grief and anger, to heights almost inconceivable in that terrible decade of the 1960s. A half-century later, his words are an example for this time of mass murders and race hatred. But today, politicians don’t seem to be able to find the words to inspire a shaken nation and rise above the muck of the presidential campaign.
When Kennedy spoke, the nation was torn, every bit as divided as it is now. There was the debate over the Vietnam War. Police assaulted African Americans and Latinos protesting racial segregation and denial of the vote. Segregationists murdered protesters. College students massed against the war and racism. Bombs planted in buildings were weapons of protest. America was in revolt.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in,” Kennedy told his audience. “For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible (for King’s death)—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
“Or 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 an effort to understand with compassion and love.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
At this point, we must be reminded that there was another side to this story. Kennedy had a hypocritical side. It is told in the archives of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, and in the journalism of the time.
In October 1963, Kennedy, then attorney general, authorized wiretaps on King’s home and the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover insisted that one of King’s closest advisers was secretly a member of the Communist Party. The FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) subjected King to surveillance, according to the Stanford archives. It “produced alleged evidence of extramarital affairs but no evidence of Communist influence.”
This history is relevant today.
Law enforcement will no doubt be given more power in the search for white terrorists. In the Hoover-COINTELPRO era, law enforcement—from the FBI down to the local police—were given such latitude, and some of the cops indulged their right-wing feelings. There’s some—maybe much—of that among today’s law enforcement, now directed against immigrants and African Americans who protest police conduct. These feelings no doubt will be part of the new war against extremists, led by a president who encourages white extremists and his toady of an attorney general.
The Kennedy who eulogized King rose above the man who was persuaded by Hoover to wiretap King.
Toward the end of Kennedy’s life (he was assassinated in June 1968) he exemplified the words and thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, another inspirational speaker. Seeking to bring the nation together in his first inaugural address, Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Almost a century later, with the country almost as divided as it was on the eve of the Civil War, Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis reflected the spirit of Lincoln, in words that should guide this generation of politicians.
As he summed up his thoughts, he said, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Sadly, today’s politicians are too cautious, too inarticulate, too glued to the polls to rise to this terrible moment of American history.