On April 4th, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Although he was only thirty-nine years old when he was murdered, King had already completely changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement and re-defined the American conscience. Yet, he paid the heaviest cost for his dedication and passion in bringing about change. Many Americans had been hopeful that through progressive legislation and policies, hate had largely begun to be rooted out in the United States; that after years of oppression and discrimination, a sort of national healing process had begun. But King’s assassination, and events during the spring and summer of 1968, would show just how divided and enraged a large part of the American public was. From riots in Detroit to the anti-war protests in Chicago, turmoil was apparently erupting in every corner of the country. Bigotry, too, was undefeated. Although segregation had been legally ended, many Southerners still violently opposed integration and African-Americans were incredibly limited in their employment, living, and educational opportunities across the country. Even though the laws had been changed, the system itself was still rigged.
The same night of Martin Luther King’s death, Robert Kennedy (who was in the middle of a long, bitter presidential primary campaign) climbed onto the back of a battered pick-up truck in downtown Indianapolis and addressed a huge crowd of anxious supporters. Most of them had no idea of what happened in Memphis just a few hours before. Although Kennedy had planned on delivering his usual stump speech, he realized that the gravity of the situation called for something more meaningful, so he decided to speak off-the-cuff. As the midwestern sky darkened and the crowd hushed, an obviously distraught Kennedy slowly announced that “Martin Luther King [had been] shot and killed”. The crowd’s reaction was immediate and intense; initial gasps of disbelief turned to pained cries of panic and frustration. But, Kennedy continued. The words that he spoke had a profound effect on his audience, and 50 years later, continue to have a profound effect on me. Kennedy mostly spoke of the need for compassion and understanding in the face of bigotry; for the need to bridge our differences and unite ourselves against the expressions of hate and violence that appear so frequently in our society. Whenever tragedy strikes, I find myself going back to these ideas, and I almost always end up re-reading this speech. I guess it serves as a reminder that decency exists everywhere, and that despite what we may see on TV or in the newspapers, most people really do want to understand and accept those who might be different than them.
I really can’t do his actual words justice, though, so I thought I should include at least the last half of the speech for you to read. So, here it is:
“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.”
When tragedy strikes, like it did so horribly yesterday, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of the importance of dedicating our lives to the “love and wisdom and compassion” that Kennedy spoke of. It might seem cheesy or idealistic, but I think that tolerance and understanding is the only real option we have.
Written by Matthew A.