RFK on Race – His Finest Hour?

By Neil Earle

Robert F. Kennedy

Our age group vividly remembers the double assasinations of 1968 – Martin Kuther King for sure down here in Memphis and Robert F. Kennedy – two public figures identifed in the minds of many people with healing for America’s wounds. I was in far-off Goose Bay, Labrador teaching school but the news touched all of us deeply.

It took me years to realize that the night King died Bobby Kennedy, running for President, had linked both these tragic events. Having to face my Citrus College history class after the Virginia Tech killings helped me remember Robert Kennedy’s words from April 1968. That night Bobby was on his way to a political rally in Indianapolis when he got the news that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. Against the advice of his advisors, Bobby Kennedy decided to give an impropmptu address to an African-American audience that had not yet heard the bad news.

It was his finest hour. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck he looked like a lonely forlorn figure. As a political leader Bobby was not and has not always been liked, by any means, but that night the message resounded with those young adults in my History 104 class. Here are Kennedy’s words, as he broke the news of MLK’s death to an all-black crowd:

“Taming the Savageness of Man”

“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 tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust…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 won despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us through the awful grace of God.’

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy

“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, 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’s 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.

“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. Thank you very much.”

Almost two months to the day, Robert Kennedy himself was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet but his words on that night live on as beacons of hope and healing.

Two things of note: Never had Bobby addressed his brother John Kennedy’s death in public before. He seemed to be saving it for an opportune time.

Secondly, there were riotings and lootings in 100 cities that grim night but…not in Indianapolis. Some stations played the speech on TV and those who heard it tell me they never forgot it. They say, history repeats, yes, but so does the healing that comes from remembering that we got through this in 1968, the lessons that help us survive our own tense times. We do get through it – I wouldn’t bet against the USA just yet!

Well done, Bobby.