Remembering Robert F. Kennedy

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot just past midnight in Los Angeles on this day in 1968 and died 26 hours later.

Kennedy’s assassination most likely altered the course of American history. Had he lived, it’s likely he would have won the Democratic nomination for president. And, if nominated, he would have been a stronger candidate than Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon.

As president, Kennedy would have ended the war in Vietnam (remember, more U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam under Nixon than LBJ). There would have been no Watergate. Kennedy wasn’t perfect by any means, but I believe he cared about the plight of the poor and powerless far more than Nixon.

Kennedy also had a rare eloquence, the kind that is sorely missing in American politics. That eloquence was never more appropriate and needed than on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, when Kennedy broke the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination to supporters a campaign rally.

Just two months before his own assassination, Kennedy calmed the mostly black crowd and delivered a powerful message of peace. It was a speech that journalist Joe Klein once observed was the last authentic moment in American politics. I play it to my students at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication each semester.

Robert Kennedy speaks to a crowd in Indiana on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

On this day, as the nation pauses to remember RFK, spend two or three minutes reading (or listening to) this very powerful message:

Senator Robert F. Kennedy
Indianapolis, Indiana
April 4, 1968

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.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

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. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–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.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

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.

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