I can remember it like yesterday. June 6, 1968. I was sitting in Social Studies class. Around 11am that morning, an announcement came over the loud speaker that Senator Robert F. Kennedy who was running for President of the United States had been shot and killed earlier that day in California. A silence and shock came over the classroom. There were no cell phones or social media to share the news. It was just us kids in a class sharing our grief.
It was just 2 months prior that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Our country was in turbulent times. Robert Kennedy made a historical speech announcing the death of King that drew praise throughout the country in such a very sad time.
Some comments and excerpts from Kennedy’s speech that day in Indianapolis, Indiana where he was on a campaign trip:
Information from Wikipedia:
Kennedy was the first to publicly inform the audience of King’s assassination, causing members of the audience to scream and wail in disbelief. Several of Kennedy’s aides were worried that the delivery of this information would result in a riot. Once the audience quieted down, Kennedy spoke of the threat of disillusion and divisiveness at King’s death and reminded the audience of King’s efforts to “replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.” Kennedy acknowledged that many in the audience would be filled with anger, especially since the assassin was believed to be a white man. He empathized with the audience by referring to the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, by a white man. The remarks surprised Kennedy aides, who had never heard him speak of his brother’s death in public. Quoting the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, with whom he had become acquainted through his brother’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, Kennedy said, “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.”
Kennedy then delivered one of his most well-remembered remarks: “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 towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” To conclude, Kennedy reiterated his belief that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites and encouraged the country to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.” He finished by asking the audience members to pray for “our country and our people.” Rather than exploding in anger at the tragic news of King’s death, the crowd dispersed quietly.
Indianapolis remained calm that night after Kennedy’s remarks, which is believed to have been in part because of the speech. In stark contrast to Indianapolis, riots erupted in more than one hundred U.S. cities including Chicago, New York City, Boston, Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, killing 35 and injuring more than 2,500. Across the country, approximately 70,000 army and National Guard troops were called out to restore order.
The speech itself has been listed as one of the greatest in American history, ranked 17th by communications scholars in a survey of 20th century American speeches. Former U.S. Congressman and media host Joe Scarborough said that it was Kennedy’s greatest speech, and was what prompted Scarborough into entering into public service. Journalist Joe Klein has called it “politics in its grandest form and highest purpose” and said that it “marked the end of an era” before American political life was taken over by consultants and pollsters.
photos from Wikipedia