In the wake of the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, an unsettling feeling came over me: deep fear for the future of my country.
I imagine Americans in 1968 experienced a similar discomfort. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, a wave of unrest rocked over a hundred cities across the United States.
Considered the most volatile domestic period since the Civil War, the King Assassination or “Holy Week” Riots left at least 43 dead, 2,500 wounded, and countless buildings destroyed from Washington D.C. to Chicago to Louisville.
One major city, however, remained unscathed. Landing in Indianapolis, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to speak at a rally in his quest to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Immediately, reporters barraged Kennedy with the news that King, the spiritual leader of the Civil Rights Movement, had been slain by a white gunman in Memphis.
Nervous for Kennedy’s safety and bearing in mind his brother’s assassination, campaign aides and city officials implored him to cancel the outdoor speech. Kennedy refused. Instead, he drafted an impromptu address with two objectives in mind: notify the gathered crowd of King’s untimely death and quell any further violence.
Standing upon a makeshift podium mounted on a flatbed truck, Bobby Kennedy hesitantly informed the diverse crowd of King’s death.
Immediately, cries and screams filled the air. “No! No!” shouted a number of voices. In the moment of grace that followed, Kennedy spoke with an eloquence and love of country that would stand beside the timeless words spoken by Lincoln at Gettysburg. First recognizing that King had dedicated his life to “love and justice between fellow human beings,” Kennedy acknowledged that many in the audience would be filled with emotions of bitterness and anger.
Reminding the crowd that his brother’s life, too, had been taken by an assassin’s bullet, Kennedy empathized with such natural instincts. But he asked them to reject these feelings of hatred, stating: “What we need in the United States is not division . . . not hatred . . . not violence and lawlessness, but 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.”
The crowd stood silent.
“So I ask you tonight,” he continued, “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 will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, and 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 our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”
“And let’s dedicate ourselves,” Kennedy concluded, “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.”
Just two months later, Kennedy’s life would also come to an abrupt end. His words, however, live on. Bobby Kennedy’s eloquence kept the peace in Indianapolis during that turbulent season. May we revisit his words of grace and make peace in our country.
Eric Brumfield of Louisville is a teacher and historian.