Letter from America: RFK’s finest moment

Fifty years later that speech, which unfolds like the movements of a quartet written in the key of compassion and understanding, stands in stark contrast to the discourse we find in the public square today in the United States and around the world.

By
June 5, 2018 09:06
4 minute read.
Robert F. Kennedy sits alongside the motorcade in this 1968 file photograph.

Robert F. Kennedy sits alongside the motorcade in this 1968 file photograph.. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

 
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Fifty years ago, a year to the day after the start of 1967 Six Day War, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles while running for president of the United States because of his support of Israel. Two months earlier he had given one of the finest and most effective speeches in American political history.

Sadly it was in response to the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

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The evening King was murdered, violence spread across the United States. In the days that followed riots broke out in 125 cities leaving 39 people dead, 2,600 injured, 21,000 arrested and $65 million in damages. That night Kennedy as part of his presidential campaign was scheduled to speak in the ghetto of Indianapolis.

Unlike much of America, riots did not break out there that night, because of his words. Kennedy’s speech was just under five minutes.

Upon landing in Indianapolis Kennedy was informed King had died. The mayor and local police said they could not guarantee his safety and strongly advised him not to go forward with his scheduled engagement. Kennedy took counsel from Civil Rights activist John Lewis and decided to proceed. As he entered the ghetto his police escort turned back. Kennedy continued on without them.

He began his speech saying, “I have some very sad news for you.” He underscored his message by using the word “sad” three times in the first two sentences.

At the same time he connected, in concentric circles of speech, his audience with those around the world. Kennedy let them know they were not alone, as well as of the national and global reach of King’s vision.

“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.”

For many in the audience, that is how they found out King had died.

In the next paragraph, not wanting to dilute the intensity of the situation, and to set up what he would say next, he used the word “difficult” twice. He then pivoted to address the anger in the air.

“You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he said, in a tone full of empathy.

That non-judgmental approach allowed Kennedy to then issue his challenge; the core of his message.

“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.”


Having said that he still felt the need to return to the issue of racial hate. He chose to do so in a very personal manner.

In a moment of raw self-exposure Kennedy would speak for the first time publicly about the pain he experienced at the murder of his brother, president John F. Kennedy.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with – 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.”

This is a statement of solidarity, of closeness, of shared pain. It also allowed him to restate his previous thought: “But we have to make an effort in the United States.

We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Even with his previous words of conciliation he felt the need to confront the raw reality of the moment again. He would use the word “difficult” three more times in the speech as he addressed the “violence,” “lawlessness” and “disorder” he knew would be yet to come. He closed his speech with a quote from Greek thought.

It was the second time he had quoted from the Greeks in his speech. We can only wish for politicians today capable of quoting Greek philosophers from memory.

“And let’s 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.”

Indianapolis did not join the violence of so much of America that week in April 1968.

That seminal speech, given from the back of a pickup truck, is a powerful reminder of the power of words carefully chosen. A textbook example of Joseph Nye’s “soft power.” The adjective may be “soft,” but the noun is “power.”

Fifty years later that speech, which unfolds like the movements of a quartet written in the key of compassion and understanding, stands in stark contrast to the discourse we find in the public square today in the United States and around the world. We would be wise to heed its message.

The author, a rabbi, teaches at Bennington College and the Arava Institute.

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