Forty-eight years ago today, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. To say that was one of the saddest and most terrible days in recent American history is an understatement. The tragic death of King was one part of the tumultuous events of the year 1968 which nearly tore apart the fabric of American society–politically, socially and racially–and left wounds that still haven’t healed today. But in the course of that tragic event, one man stood up and made an amazing and heartfelt plea for compassion, tolerance and wisdom. The man was Robert F. Kennedy, Senator from New York who was then running for President. He gave his speech at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, and you can see and listen to it in the YouTube clip above.
Few orations in recent history have been as consequential as Kennedy’s remarks. After giving the news to a shocked crowd that Dr. King was dead, he acknowledged the sadness and rage that so many Americans were feeling, but he also appealed to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” in stressing the need to come together to solve racial and social problems instead of acting out violently. That night, April 4, riots and violence triggered by outrage over the assassination consumed dozens of cities across the country. Indianapolis, however, was not one of them. Kennedy’s plea for calm and conciliation is credited with tamping down tensions in the city. Words do have consequences, when spoken at the right place and the right time.
In America in 2016 we are in the midst of a political season that many observers are comparing to 1968 in terms of its divisiveness and its negative passions. Obviously we still have racial problems, as well as many others, and all too often tempers get too hot and it’s much easier to fall down a slope toward division and confrontation than it is to climb out of it. Kennedy’s speech, however, reminds us that our society and our world is what we make of it, and our choices and attitudes really can make a difference. On this sad anniversary, let’s not forget that.