Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd of African Americans and whites through a megaphone outside the Justice Department Jun. 14, 1963. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Robert Brehl: Robert F. Kennedy's speech resonates in today's world

  • December 7, 2017
Recently while doing research, I stumbled upon a speech given by Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. RFK’s message was simple and heartfelt: divisiveness leads to destruction and we must find ways to come together.

Ironically, moments after watching a video of that speech, news broke about President Donald Trump touching off yet another racially charged furor by tweeting out videos from a fringe British ultranationalist party purportedly showing Muslims committing acts of violence.

The reaction to Trump was sharp and critical, especially in London, where British Prime Minister Theresa May scolded him for embracing Britain First, the far-right party of Jayda Fransen.

“It is wrong for the president to have done this,” her office said in a statement. “Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people.”

But enough about Trump. It’s more interesting looking back almost 50 years to the man who was running for president until he was gunned down 63 days after Martin Luther King. Kennedy’s message that night resonates as much today as then.

When I showed the speech to a wise elder, her reaction was poignant: “It brings tears to my eyes and sadness to my heart to think of what might have been. Incredible that we’ve slid down so far.”

Let’s roll back the clock to April 4, 1968. Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis just days before the Indiana Democratic primary.

In an effort to get more blacks registered to vote, he chose to speak in the heart of Indianapolis’ inner-city.

Early that evening King, the American clergyman and civil rights leader, was fatally shot in Memphis, Tenn. Rushed to hospital, he was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. Kennedy’s plane landed in Indianapolis around that time.

Fearing a race riot, Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar told Kennedy’s staff that his police could not guarantee his safety. (Racial violence was beginning to sweep the country, with riots reaching more than 100 cities leaving 39 dead and more than 2,000 injured during the week after King’s assassination.)

The mayor urged Kennedy to cancel his speech. But RFK insisted, with or without police protection. He scribbled notes during the drive from the airport.

Upon arrival, Kennedy stood atop the trailer of a flatbed truck and announced that King was dead.

Most in the crowd only knew that he had been shot. What followed was a five-minute off-the-cuff speech where his notes were not used. (It is easily found on YouTube.)

Adding to the tension, many in an estimated audience of 2,500 were from so-called radical black groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Radical Action Project.

Kennedy begins by saying King dedicated his life to justice and nonviolence. He tells the audience white people were said to be responsible for King’s murder and he understands if blacks are filled with bitterness 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,” Kennedy laments. “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.”

He quotes the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus — known as “the father of tragedy” — on how pain and despair can morph into wisdom through the grace of God.

“What we need in the United States is not division,” Kennedy said, “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.”

The speech is moving and, in some ways, rather naïve considering what still occurs in the U.S. and around the world today. The “savageness of man” has not been tamed.

But, on the other hand, Kennedy was right in so many ways and it’s too bad there aren’t more leaders like him today.

A final note: Indianapolis was the only major American city that had no riots following King’s murder.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca, or @bbrehl on Twitter.)