Our thinking of Robert F. Kennedy this week evokes emotions that stir the human spirit – especially in our age of cynicism and mistrust of leaders.
Yesterday, Dawn Porter commented that what we miss and so admire about Bobby Kennedy was his conviction, passion, energy and intelligence. Indeed those characteristics of his leadership mesmerize us today just as they mesmerized us during that fateful summer of 1968. Senator Kennedy’s death left so much undone - work that still needs to be completed. We got lost in the Vietnam War. Subsequent crises in leadership affected our morale. Yet fifty years later, amidst all the mistrust, from Brooklyn to Charlottesville, and from Detroit to Houston, an increasing number of us are willing to revisit the unfinished business of 1968 and to take up causes that are larger than our personal affairs or the personality of any one individual.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend expressed her desire that all of us simply make use of the talents that we are given to help lift humanity. In other words, each of us can start with what we have and add energy to the ripple effect that Senator Kennedy talked about. Bobby Kennedy used his talent to help others. With empathy towards the marginalized and a willingness to engage with those who disagreed with him, he captured the attention and imagination of millions.
In that fateful summer of 1968, the lives of two men marched towards an intersection with each other in a way that might have changed the trajectory of our history. MLK had expanded the civil rights movement into a broader campaign for human dignity with his Poor People’s Campaign - a campaign designed to lift all Americans, whether they be black or white. Likewise, Bobby Kennedy was calling for universal respect and understanding and for the attitude and behavior of love for one’s fellow citizens regardless of race. Indeed, Senator Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis averted rioting in that city the day Martin Luther King was killed, just two months before Bobby was shot at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles. [see the text of Robert F. Kennedy’s remarks in Indianapolis printed below].
What is it that we so miss about Robert Kennedy? Certainly the conviction, passion, energy and intelligence. But also his empathy towards others and willingness to pursue justice. And his ability to connect with just about everyone through authenticity and vulnerability, as opposed to the showmanship and the degrading of others that we see too much of today. What we miss about Bobby is the stuff of leadership. Ingredients not defined by party affiliation or political doctrine. We miss intelligent ability deployed with compassion and a sense of justice. We need more of that in America today. More courage. More messages of peace, reconciliation and hope to move us toward a just and more perfect union.
April 4, 1968
Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King
Senator Robert F. Kennedy
April 4, 1968
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.