By Eric Uhlfelder
One reason our country is in such turmoil is because our leaders, starting with but not limited to the president, do not have the capacity or desire for thoughtful, intelligent oratory that can positively shape the arc of events. So many seem to know only how to further divide and exacerbate our problems.
The lies that regularly course through public dialogue leave one feeling that words no longer have meaning. Even many politicians we admire refuse to speak with clarity, afraid to be labeled sensitive or intellectual.
A half a century ago our country was being torn apart by war, poverty, hate, and vicious racial division that was far worse than what we’re experiencing today.
And in the middle of one of the most tumultuous years in our nation’s long history, when the Democratic presidential primaries were in full swing in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was just 42 at the time, was a leading candidate for the nomination. His brother, President John F. Kennedy, was killed by an assassin just five years earlier.
Bobby, as he was affectionately known by his admirers, was scheduled to speak in a poor Black neighborhood in Indianapolis the evening of King’s death. Many of his aides warned him about danger and advised that he cancel the speech. One campaign staffer who urged the senator to speak was the late John Lewis.
Kennedy’s decision: if not now, when…when leadership and compassion are so badly needed from America’s leaders?
That evening a dense crowd had assembled as Kennedy climbed onto the back of a truck; and standing unceremoniously above the tailgate he spoke without a script. A man in the crowd recalled, “Kennedy had tears in his eyes, I saw it, he felt it.”
Indianapolis was the only major city that didn’t suffer riots that night, because leadership and words can matter.
Two months later, Kennedy was dead, also killed by an assassin, altering the course of history—here and abroad.
These are his words from that evening:
“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.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s 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, 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 [with] compassion and love.
For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust 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 or go 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 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, and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness, and 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 that abide in our land, and 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. Thank you very much.”
Senator Robert F. Kennedy
April 4, 1968