Fifty years ago tonight, moments before he boarded a plane in Muncie, Ind., Robert Kennedy learned that the Dr. Martin Luther King had just been shot in Memphis. He somehow knew in his heart that Dr. King would not survive. Kennedy was heading to Indianapolis where he was scheduled to give a speech that night, and on landing, he learned that Dr. King had died. Kennedy’s aides advised him to cancel his speech, for they knew tensions would be at an all-time high, but Kennedy refused.
Although Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King had an often contentious relationship, disagreeing on a number of issues, Robert Kennedy stepped up to the plate that night. Rather than his prepared speech, Kennedy gave an impromptu eulogy for Dr. King that became to be considered his most memorable speech. When he arrived, it was raining, the crowd, predominantly black, was tense and angry. But Kennedy reached out anyway, and by the end of his speech, one of the gang members who was present said, “They kill Martin Luther, and we was ready to move. After he spoke we couldn’t get nowhere.”
Andrew Young later remembered, “He was in the middle of a totally black community, and he stood there without fear and with great confidence and empathy, and he literally poured his soul out talking about his brother. The amazing thing to us was that the crowd listened. He reached them.”
Kennedy spoke that night for only around six minutes. But unlike so many other American cities, Indianapolis didn’t burn that night or over the next few days, as did Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and scores of other American cities.
Robert F. Kennedy’s Speech on the night of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Death:
I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is 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 there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I 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 go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “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 or 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 they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, 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; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is 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 who 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.