40 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That evening, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was in the midst of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, had a previously scheduled campaign stop in a predominantly black neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite the advice from many of his aides, as well as the warning from police that they would be unable to provide him with protection, Kennedy decided to face the audience and deliver news of which most in the audience were unaware. [Note: this can be difficult to comprehend in today’s context–how several hours after such a catastrophic event in our country, people would be in the dark.)
Kennedy wrote down a few notes on the ride, but, as you can see in the video, spoke directly from the heart–delivering one of the best speeches in history (an impromptu one, at that). Atop a podium in a flatbed truck, Kennedy spoke for four minutes and fifty-seven seconds.
Riots and violence broke in nearly every urban city that night–the city of Indianapolis was not one of them. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
We sometimes forget in our video media-driven world, but speeches are more than just delivery–the words matter a great deal. The transcript is below:
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.
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.
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.
Robert F. Kennedy – April 4, 1968