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RFK’s Finest Hour


Robert Kennedy found himself some 20,000 feet above the earth just minutes after learning that down below, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King had been shot. All Bobby knew, as he flew to Indianapolis to speak at a rally in a poor black neighborhood, was that King was in critical condition. His mind was already, no doubt, flashing back to Dallas and his own brother’s fate. Now what?

Kennedy’s advisors were divided. Some felt he should cancel his appearance and just issue a statement, while others thought he should go to the event.

Two of RFK’s black staffers, John Lewis (now Rep. D – GA) and Earl Graves Jr., were already at the site of the rally and believed that most of the people there didn’t even know King had been killed. Lewis felt that Bobby had to go, saying, “You can’t have a crowd like this, and something like this happens, and send them home without saying anything at all. Kennedy has to speak, for his sake and for the sake of these people.”

Upon landing, RFK was given the news that Martin Luther King was dead. “Oh God, “ Kennedy replied, “When is this violence going to stop?”

While still on the plane, Robert Kennedy made up his mind he would go. Soon after getting out of the plane, the Chief of Police of Indianapolis implored Kennedy to call off the rally, saying it was too dangerous for him to go, and that riots were sure to break out.

The crowd of about 3000 waiting for Robert Kennedy at Seventeenth and Broadway was a volatile mix. Many of the people had got there early and hadn’t yet heard of King’s death; the other group of people there were those who had jammed into the streets after learning the news. Some of these were Ten Percenters, a young black militant group who hoped to start a riot or worse. There were only a small amount of whites in the audience, and most of them were standing near the flat bed truck that would function as a speaking platform for RFK’s speech—if he lived to give it.

Robert Kennedy waded into this swirling cauldron and proceeded to give the finest address of his life. It wasn’t really a speech at all, it was more of a prayer – an updated Gettysburg Address, for a country just as divided. He very likely saved his own life along with countless others that drizzly evening. What makes this speech even more remarkable is that RFK didn’t use a prepared text. He spoke from his heart for nearly seven minutes without notes, or even anything written on his hand.

From “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America, by Thurston Clarke: “When Kennedy finished, some in the crowd behaved as if he had just delivered a campaign speech. They rushed the platform, cheering and reaching for him.  But most stood still, weeping and stunned into silence. They disbursed quietly and within minutes the park had emptied. A month later, one of the militant Ten Percenters told researchers Karl Anatol and John Dittner of Purdue University, “We went there for trouble after he {Kennedy} spoke. We couldn’t get nowhere.” Another militant told them, “After he spoke, we realized the sensible way was not to kill him the way {they} killed his brother.” Another claimed that Kennedy’s speech had saved Indianapolis from violence, saying, “The black power guys didn’t get no place after the man speak.”

Had Kennedy skipped the rally, or delivered a less successful speech, there would have been a riot at Seventeenth and Broadway that evening.  Anatol and Dittner speculated that “a racially mixed, congested crowd would have erupted into physical conflict between black and white with lives being lost and women and children caught in the melee. Furthermore, if a riot had taken place, a national television audience would have been witness to its commencement. The prospect of chain reactions in other areas cannot be over-ruled.”

During the next twenty-four hours, riots broke out in 119 American cities, leaving fourty-six dead, twenty-five hundred injured and destruction unmatched since the Civil War. But in Indianapolis, where race relations were notoriously tense, no guns were fired or Molotov cocktails thrown, and it was the only major American city to escape the violence. Three decades later, former Mayor {and now U.S. Senator} Richard Lugar would call Kennedy’s appearance at the rally “a turning point” for his city.”

Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…

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 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, 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.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah 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’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.

(Interrupted by applause)

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.

Why can’t people talk this way anymore?

As we all know, two months later, Robert Kennedy himself would be dead.  In 1988 writer Jack Newfield called RFK’s assassination “a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes.”


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    May 19, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    On the top of Arlington National is a simple white cross, the grass around this marker is well kept and neat. On Monday, January 19, 2009 I walked this big hill, to pay my respects to JFK and RFK. It was bitter cold as well as windy. Obama and Biden had just left minutes before. I went to JFK ‘s grave site, with the flame, and the people gathered around as well as took photos of the surroundings. I made my way around the horseshoe loop and then stood next to Bobby Kennedy’s grave. For the longest time I just stood there , suddenly I was transported back to my childhood. And tears came out of my eyes. I took my phone out and snapped a picture. I silently walked away. I then looked for my great granduncles grave among the sea of monuments. Approximately a few feet from Bobby Kennedy’s grave marker, I looked at a map that Arlington provided for me. I had despair for a second. Looked down for a second towards Bobby’s grave then looked at the stone right in front of me, and then saw my Uncles grave. It was overwhelming to see they are buried within a few feet from each other.
    great article Don !
    your friend jfkfan

  2. May 14, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I wept as well, and I found “a wound that hurts more, not less as time passes” comforting, for it tells me I am not alone. The same thing happened several months ago, when I again heard Ted’s eulogy for Bobby, and a few weeks later the eulogy for Ted himself.

    Maybe its just that advancing age intensifies melancholy; the mortality of the great is an increasing reminder of our own mortality. Or maybe there’s something else at work here. In the sixties, there were dreams. In the seventies, dreams interrupted, in the eighties, dreams renounced, in the 90s dreams rekindled, and in the aughts, dreams nearly destroyed.

    For some of us of a certain age, the cycles seem longer as our time to see them realized grows shorter, and our tears are more selfish as we mourn what might have been.

  3. TomDem55
    May 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Abraham, Martin and John and Bobby….
    Christ I don’t miss the late 60s
    Bobby spoke from a heart filled with sorrow…but also filled with hope..
    I still break into a tear whcn I see Bobby or Jack in a photo before their deaths…
    Bobby I am sure would have forgivin Sirhan Sirhan, I am not so sure about Jack and Oswald…
    I miss them both terribly, because they tried to help us and inspire us to be better citizens….better people…

  4. EmeraldKnight76
    May 10, 2010 at 1:26 am

    This isn’t the first time I’ve read RFK’s “speech” from that saddest of days. It also isn’t the first time it’s brought me to tears. I would disagree on one point about this post though. We DO still have people that talk this way. Unfortunately, if you speak well and fill a stadium they label you Hitler now. What would RFK think of that?

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