An RFK memory: Guts, grace, and the greatest stump speech

     Senator Robert F. Kennedy, D- N.Y., who had campaigned in Indiana Thursday, April 5, 1968  was shaken as he informed an audience in a black section of Indianapolis,

    Senator Robert F. Kennedy, D- N.Y., who had campaigned in Indiana Thursday, April 5, 1968 was shaken as he informed an audience in a black section of Indianapolis, "Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight," Kennedy learned of Dr. King's death when his plane landed in Indianapolis. (AP Photo)

    I’m on the move this morning, so I’ll leave you with this apt reminiscence of Robert F. Kennedy.

    The anniversary of his tragic death, 47 years ago Saturday, brought to mind his improvised remarks to an anguished black audience on the night that Martin Luther King was killed. For reasons that should soon be obvious, it was, and remains, the gutsiest stump speech in American politics.

    In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Kennedy was en route to inner-city Indianapolis for a campaign gig when he got word that King had been gunned down. He had intended to deliver his standard pitch for his presidential candidacy, but that speech was quickly scrapped. The local police pleaded with him to cancel his appearance, and told him that they couldn’t guarantee his safety. Word traveled a lot slower in that pre-Twitter era, and nobody knew whether the expectant crowd had heard about King. But Kennedy insisted on going, and breaking the news himself, if necessary. He cobbled together his new remarks in the moving car. At the rally site, and without police protection – the cops had refused to accompany him – Kennedy climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck. He turned to a community leader and quietly asked, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” Informed that, no, they do not, he faced the audience.

    These excerpts don’t begin to capture the mood of the moment, or the man’s guts and grace (but the video does):

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    Could you lower those signs, please? I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news 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 was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. (Cries of anguish from the crowd.)

    In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black…you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

    For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also 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 get beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, “Even 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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.

    So I ask you tonight to return home…to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love….We will have difficult times in the future. 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 life, and want justice for all human beings that 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.

    It’s hard to imagine any of today’s poll-driven, focus-grouped politicians speaking that way on the stump – under pressure, from the gut, on the fly, off the cuff. And in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, his eloquent plea still resonates.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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