It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

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A month from now, the voters of Indiana will have the potential to play a pivotal role in the Democratic nominating contest for the first time in 40 years. The anniversary is important--especially today. On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy--who would eventually win the state's primary--arrived in Indiana for a series of campaign stops. Boarding a plane to fly from an event in Muncie to Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot in Memphis; by the time the plane landed in the capital, King was dead. Although Indianapolis police said they could not guarantee the senator's safety--his wife, Ethel, and advisers pleaded with him to cancel--Kennedy insisted on speaking, as scheduled, at 17th and Broadway, in the heart of Indianapolis' black community. He was greeted by several thousand supporters, many of whom were waving signs and cheering. They had not heard the news.

Hunched in a black overcoat against the cold and wind, Kennedy delivered an extemporaneous tribute to King that was both anguished and hopeful. Aide Adam Walinsky had hastily drafted a speech, but Kennedy waved it off, choosing to rely instead on the wrinkled notes he had written himself on the ride from the airport. "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," he said, his voice reedy and wavering. "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." That night, there were fires and violence in more than 100 U.S. cities. But Indianapolis was calm.

Kennedy's King speech is especially relevant, I think, in the midst of this year's heated Democratic battle. Why? Indiana native Ron Klain, a former Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaign staffer, explains it better then I ever could:

Forty years later, whenever I hear people say that a politician’s speeches don’t matter, that campaigns are a waste and that the sort of conflict we have in the 2008 Democratic primary is “destructive,” I think of Robert Kennedy’s words in Indianapolis that night — a speech that would have never happened but for the hard-fought, highly competitive 1968 primary campaign — and the millions of people like me who were inspired by them and their impact on that city. For all the complexity and conflict in the 2008 race, the anniversary of the Kennedy speech reminds us that campaigns can leave lasting legacies of activism and idealism... With the Democratic Party set to nominate the first-ever major party African-American or female candidate this year, we are not just remembering history — and the vision of social change that Robert Kennedy so brilliantly set forth on April 4, 1968 — we are living it.

Today, as both John McCain and Hillary Clinton honor King in Memphis--and Barack Obama stumps in Indiana--all I can add is, "Amen."

 

There's a home video of Kennedy's remarks at the top of this post; a transcript is below.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some -- some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- 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; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's 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 evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

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.

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.

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.

My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even 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 ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it'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, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's 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 that abide in our land.

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. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.