MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is April 4th, 2018. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. Fifty years ago today, as news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death spread, a young senator from New York was on the campaign trail in Indianapolis, Indiana. Robert F. Kennedy was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.
REICHARD: Kennedy learned of King’s death shortly before arriving at a poor, African-American neighborhood. With riots already breaking out in other cities, the local police chief told Kennedy he didn’t have enough officers to protect him in the event of violence.
Kennedy went anyway, knowing he would have to break the news to the crowd.
He climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck and gave one of the most important speeches in modern U.S. history.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, SPEECH: 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 in the cause 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 greater polarization–black people amongst blacks, white people 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 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 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 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. Thank you very much.
REICHARD: That’s former Senator Robert Kennedy, speaking in Indianapolis shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The killing sparked protests and riots in some 100 U.S. cities, but not Indianapolis. To this day, many cite Kennedy’s remarks as the reason why.
Just two months later, Kennedy, too, was assassinated at a campaign event in California.