Robert Kennedy on Luther King Death: ‘awful grace of God’

By Chris McCarthy

Let us 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.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 4 April 1968

In the early spring of 1968 on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, a single fatal gunshot fired by James Earl Ray felled the preeminent leader of the African-American civil rights movement, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

That same night, on April 4, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis to a black audience during his campaign for the democratic presidential nomination. Despite being warned by police that the crowd would be angry and potentially violent, Senator Kennedy broke the news to them and spoke in touching and personal terms of Luther King’s legacy and the need for America to come together and heal after decades of animosity and mistrust.

After the initial shock of the news had died down amongst the crowd, the Senator asked them to reflect on “what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.” One choice was to be “filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for a revenge;” a path that would lead to greater polarisation among black and white communities.

The alternative choice the senator said, recalling the life and work of Luther King, was to understand and to comprehend, to “replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.” It was a bold approach for a white politician, even with the liberal credentials of Senator Kennedy, to tell an overwhelmingly black crowd that they must subdue their anger at the injustice of a peaceful and tolerant man gunned down by a white supremacist.

To demonstrate his empathy with those in the room, the senator invoked the memory of the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, five years prior. It was incumbent upon all Americans, he urged, whether white or black, to “make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.” And in-keeping with the liberal intelligentsia label attached to his brother, Senator Kennedy chose a quote from his favourite poet, the ancient Greek Aeschylus, to help the crowd try to make sense of Luther King’s murder:

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.

In the paragraph immediately following the quote, Senator Kennedy transitioned from counselor and philosopher to self-appointed national leader and demonstrated both the eloquence of his prose that was a hallmark of his campaign, and the potentially transformative power of politics. His call for unity and compassion elicited loud cheers and applause from the crowd:

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 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 black.

In his prescient closing remarks the Senator acknowledged that there would be difficult times ahead, that this would not mark the end of violence or lawlessness: Three months later Kennedy was shot and killed in California by a Palestinian immigrant ostensibly in retribution for the Senator’s support for Israel, and instead of the great liberal hope in the White House, Americans elected Richard Nixon to two consecutive terms.

Nearly forty years later at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the then-Senator for Illinois, Barack Obama, rallied against the idea of a black America and a white America, an Asian America and a Latino America; there is only the United States of America he proudly trumpeted. It’s a sad indictment of America today that four decades on from Senator Kennedy’s call for tolerance and understanding, the country remains just as bitterly polarised.

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