Robert Kennedy on Martin Luther King: a life “dedicated to love and to justice”

Martin Luther King assassination image

Martin Luther King assassination image (Photo credit: Mr. Littlehand)

By Robert Mann

In the early evening of April 4, 1968 — 45 years ago tonight — Sen. Robert Kennedy came to Indianapolis for a campaign rally.

The New York senator was in town to speak to the mostly black audience on behalf of his own presidential ambitions. Instead, he would shoulder the grim task of informing the stunned crowd of the murder, earlier that day, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kennedy had a rare eloquence, the kind that is sorely today missing in American politics. That eloquence was never more appropriate and needed than on that early spring day in Indiana.

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

On this day, as the nation pauses to remember King’s death, 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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5 Responses to Robert Kennedy on Martin Luther King: a life “dedicated to love and to justice”

  1. celeste84 says:

    Thank you for so thoughtfully recalling this powerful moment for us.


  2. gritsngumbo says:

    Thanks for posting this. How quickly we all forget.
    We were in Memphis a few years back and took a tour of the city on one of the tourist trolleys. A middle aged black man was driving and gave an interesting commentary about the city. I turned to my right and there was the Loraine Motel and the driver drove past with just a brief comment. I asked him to stop and back up so I could take a few minutes to reflect on what that location and what happened at that location meant to the entire country. I was visibly moved, and also quite disappointed that the site wasn’t a bigger part of the tour. Maybe most don’t want to remember, but I did and do.


  3. Robert Mann says:

    Thanks for the comment. Our family was in Memphis a few years ago and I took my children, then age 11, to see the Lorraine Motel and the museum. It was a moving and memorable experience for us all. So glad that I took them there.


  4. Thanks for sharing this, I appreciate it–I was in Memphis when I was quite young, which I had come to the Lorraine Hotel instead of Graceland!


    • tls0 says:

      I went to both Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum a few years ago and did not know, until I walked up to the front of it, that the museum was housed in the Lorraine. I first noticed the old finned Cadillac out front and it was a while before I realized that this was the place where King had been shot. It was a creeping realization and very effective. I was 11 years old in spring 1968 and it all came back. I also remember staying up to follow the California primary results the night that RFK was shot. Thanks for the memory replay.


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