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"I have some very sad news for all of you..."
April 4, 2010 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Someone had to break the news.

A great man died on this day. Robert F. Kennedy sat in silence when he heard. He was wearing JFK's old coat. After hearing the news, RFK got up and shared that news to a mostly African American rally in Indianapolis in 1968. Several thousand had gathered to get good spots, and had not heard. Once the word passed, more showed up armed and ready for chaos. Most left with tears in their eyes, and hugging their neighbor. The police wouldn't come within blocks of the rally site, and the Mayor was going to call out fire trucks to turn hoses on the gathering.

As he approached the old flatbed truck in the blackest part of Indy, his speechwriters tried to hand him scraps of papers with notes. He just waved at them and said. "I've got it."

Totally, off the cuff. Totally eloquent. A testimony ot the power of words.

As cities all over the country went up in flames Indy prayed for peace. There was no violence.

One of the most truly moving political speeches in the world, spoken not from talking points, but from a faithful heart.
posted by timsteil (45 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite

 
The screams took me by surprise. I had forgotten that everyone didn't know everything instantly then.

. . . He quoted Aeschylus? And it worked? So it did.

Thanks for this.

.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:39 PM on April 4, 2010




If only we ever did learn from the past
posted by real_paris at 4:48 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our own will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Aeschylus (525 - 456 BC)


Kills me everytime.
posted by Skygazer at 4:51 PM on April 4, 2010 [39 favorites]


Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...

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 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 these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. 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.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah 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. 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.

(Interrupted by applause)

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.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 4:53 PM on April 4, 2010 [50 favorites]


Free at last
they took your life
they could not
take your pride
posted by bwg at 4:54 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Moving FPP. Thanks.

.
posted by Splunge at 5:05 PM on April 4, 2010


As delmoi noted, MLK had been to the mountain-top, and he looked over, and he saw the Promised Land.
posted by orthogonality at 5:06 PM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Somebody edit delmoi's quote to add that second "not".)
posted by orthogonality at 5:07 PM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


From Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign:
There was tension along the border between those in the black crowd who knew about the assasination and those in the white crowd who did not ... A black woman grabbed a white pastor by the arm and cried, "Dr. King is dead, and a white man did it, why does he [Kennedy] have to come here?"
...
Had Kennedy known that some in the crowd were armed, he would have been even more determined to address the rally. After Dallas, he had embraced risk. He copied Emerson's "always do what you are afraid to do" into his daybook, and drove into pirahna-infested waters in Brazil, faced a rhinoceros at 20 feet in Africa, and rafted through treacherous rapids. Like JFK, he considered moral courage more difficult to demonstrate than physical courage.
...
Had Kennedy skipped the rally, there would have been a riot at Seventeenth and Broadway that evening. ... During the next twenty-four hours, riots broke out in 119 American cities, leaving forty-seven dead, twenty-five hundred injured, and destruction unmatched since the Civil War. But in Indianapolis, where race relations were notoriously tense, no guns were fired or Molotov cocktails thrown, and it was the only American city to escape the violence.
There's a whole chapter in Clarke's book on this speech. If you care about this subject at all, please go read that chapter - and the book - in its entirety.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:10 PM on April 4, 2010 [12 favorites]


I'm stunned every time I imagine living through '63-'68: Medgar Evers, JFK, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Malcolm X, MLK Jr., RFK, and countless others all assassinated in the span of 5 years. I'd be terrified to turn on the news at night.
posted by sallybrown at 5:16 PM on April 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


Dr. King had covered this ground, too:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:16 PM on April 4, 2010 [40 favorites]


(Somebody edit delmoi's quote to add that second "not".)

Doh!
posted by delmoi at 5:21 PM on April 4, 2010


This was such a terrible year...

I had just graduated from community college on June 6th of '68, I walked out of my last car, and headed south, we hadn't really recovered from MLK's death...

I was driving from Michigan to Miami, between colleges, to work the summer at one of the hotels there (I ended up working at the Fontainebleau, the headquarters for the Republican Convention, what an experience..... ). Somewhere, in the middle of the night, driving an old VW bug through the mountains, I heard the news on the radio... I spent the next ten hours with nothing to do but listen to the news I could get on the VW's radio and think about this..

Thanks for posting this.. i think...I'll let you know in the morning...
posted by HuronBob at 5:22 PM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


ouch...make that "last class"
posted by HuronBob at 5:24 PM on April 4, 2010


Though i hate posting on my my own stuff, just one thing I wanted to include was this...

I guess about 5 blocks from the rally site, which i believe was 17th and Broadway, there is a police car blocking the road telling them to turn back, because they are about go into the ghetto, and there was about to be massive trouble down there. I guess one of RFK's aides got in their face a bit, and said "Well why don't you guys come down there and guard us then?"

Cops just said "You nuts? We ain't going down in that neighborhood!"

I forget if RFK actually got out of the car, or just rolled down the window and said it, but it was, "You know what? I would take my whole family down there and sleep on the street corner and I would feel safe. If you don't, maybe you guys are the problem around here."

I wish my children lived in a world where RFK and MLK could have gone on to achieve things better for us all. I really do.
posted by timsteil at 5:27 PM on April 4, 2010 [66 favorites]


My absolute favorite speech. Not only because of its quality and sincerity, but because he didn't even prepare. You can sort of tell it wasn't prepared beforehand, but that doesn't take away from it at all.
I've been thinking about this speech a lot recently. I lost a family member earlier this week. I probably should have given a eulogy, both because I was close to this person and because I'm considered "the one that can write formal stuff" in my family.
I didn't give a eulogy, for a couple different reasons, some emotional, some because I had no idea what to say. I had a eulogy that I started to plan, but never finished. The only thing in that text file? "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." RFK's speech was the only thing that came to mind.
I've seen this video a hundred times and it still gets to me. The only other one that does that is that one where Mister Rogers melts Senator Pastore's icy heart.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 5:38 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


A close friend who recently turned 80, and was central to the politics of the late sixties/seventies often tells me... "you need to understand how unhinged, how upsetting things were. It is hard to explain."
posted by R. Mutt at 5:40 PM on April 4, 2010


.

.
posted by flippant at 5:40 PM on April 4, 2010


Bob Herbert: We Still Don’t Hear Him
posted by homunculus at 5:55 PM on April 4, 2010


i have never heard that speech before. i think i've read parts of it and i certainly have heard OF it.

but wow...i think understand now why people were comparing Obama to the Kennedys. he really can speak to people.

i was so moved by that speech that i didn't know whether to cry or say some nonverbal prayer that would hug everyone everywhere.

i have always thought he was very brave to go there considering the violence that had been going on (not that i was alive, but in reading history). i think it says so much (and so much of that seems to be lost) that there was no violence that night, there were no riots, those who were armed and angry ended up hugging and crying with those who were not armed - everyone realized they were all terribly upset by the same thing.

would that there have been a youtube to broadcast that speech in its entirety everywhere that night.
posted by sio42 at 6:11 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


If one wasn't alive and of age back then, it must be hard to imagine the polarizing anxiety of those difficult yet heady times. Yet within sixty days of one another both these great lights were extinguished and many of us who were young then, and just starting out our futures, were terribly shock-ridden and confused to the depths of our beings. RFK's eloquence and courage that night (you need to see this footage to appreciate it) said so much.

I still think about them both, and miss Bobby and Dr. King very, very much.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 6:21 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I consider the baby boomer generation as the last great hope of civilization to finally shed a sovereign rule. I consider the murder of RFK to be the moment when the baby boomer generation was finally fractured and demoralized enough to no longer hinder the plans of the monarchs to rule and plunder with impunity. RFK seemed to have been the kind of guy who wanted to bring America in line with the ideals on which we were founded. I've seen dozens of men taken down throughout the years once their populist following became a threat. Of course now they don't have to put a bullet into your head to kill your movement, a simple muting of an audience at your political rally will do...
posted by any major dude at 6:26 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


For those of us who were children back in the day, we seemed to take it as a given that people get assassinated. That and the war was our normality. That in itself is rather an awful thing to contemplate. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people just a few years older, to contemplate all of this.

I lost both my grandmothers in 1969 as well. Forgive me if I don't have much nostalgia for the decade.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:41 PM on April 4, 2010


...to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

This is perhaps my favorite speech ever, but I had never heard it before, only read it. Thank you.
posted by naoko at 6:58 PM on April 4, 2010


If one wasn't alive and of age back then, it must be hard to imagine the polarizing anxiety of those difficult yet heady times.

i have the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that it won't be hard to imagine for much longer - i'm starting to sense the same kind of confusion and bitterness that i grew up with in the 60s - in my view, it's never really gone away, even if it has ebbed at times

we've been a disturbed and shell-shocked nation for a long time - perhaps the so-called halycon days of the 50s and early 60s were just an illusion, and this is just what the march of history is - tragedy and conflict, with a few years of respite and well-being being the exception, not the rule

it doesn't seem that our troubles have ever stopped since 1963 - it was one thing to be endangered by the world's affairs and economic troubles - but since the 60s, it seems as though we've been our own worst enemies

no, i don't have to imagine it - not just because i lived through it - but because i'm not so sure that it's ever really stopped
posted by pyramid termite at 6:59 PM on April 4, 2010


[A few comments removed. If you really want to have this argument, you know where to do so.]
posted by cortex at 7:06 PM on April 4, 2010


I consider the baby boomer generation as the last great hope of civilization to finally shed a sovereign rule. I consider the murder of RFK to be the moment when the baby boomer generation was finally fractured and demoralized enough to no longer hinder the plans of the monarchs to rule and plunder with impunity. RFK seemed to have been the kind of guy who wanted to bring America in line with the ideals on which we were founded.

James Ellroy's Underworld trilogy points to this, how the real kings and kingmakers got their revenge on the MLK, JFK and RFKs of the era, destroying people's hopes and dreams, laying waste to any poor souls who dared to get in the way. It's fiction, but it is so well-researched and so tragic that I couldn't help but read each page with terror, knowing what's to come in the real world.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:14 PM on April 4, 2010


I remember being eight, in the car with my parents as we were driving home from the Chinese restaurant which may as well have been our second home in those days, and mentioning that we were studying Lincoln's assassination in history.

My folks, in the front seat, went into a conversation about where they were, how they found out, what they felt, and all of that. They weren't using any names - just pronouns - so I was confused. I knew they were too young to have been alive when Lincoln was killed, but I was young, and I had to ask.

"No, no... we're talking about Kennedy."

We hadn't gotten to that part of history yet, so I had no knowledge of it.

That night informed me not only about JFK's assassination (my dad had grown up in Dallas) but also about MLK. I'd heard "I have a dream" but that night they told me of when they had heard Dr. King speak at SMU. It was to an almost entirely white audience, and was much angrier. Even at my young age, it came through that they weren't speaking ill of Dr. King, but that they rather saw the more real side of the race struggles in the country, as opposed to the idealized optimism of his most famous speech.

Then they got to RFK.

What I learned that night was that JFK's assassination was the end of an era, and that RFK's came to them (and they were both life-long Republicans at this time) as the death of the future.

RFK is, in my mind, the greatest of the Kennedys. I know that's far from a novel thought by this point, but his was the real loss. Robert had brains, had balls, and had eloquence. I don't know what Sirhan Sirhan had against him, but he was effective, if that is the right word. Taking down what would have been the greatest political juggernaut of our time, before he really had the chance.

Robert Kennedy, the man who would have been president, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who would have led African-Americans to the promised land.

In death, MLK helped to further his goal. In death, RFK is largely forgotten. What the hell was it with the '60s, that both were lost so quickly to one another?

Two men who sought peace, cut down in their prime by other men who found war to be the better option.

Rest in Peace.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:22 PM on April 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ok. Don't get me wrong. As a resident of Indianapolis and a graduate student of history at IUPUI, this is one of my all-time favorite moments in the city's history - so much so that a local artist and I collaborated on a painting and written essay depicting this event.

But I feel like the fantastic rhetoric of this speech has in some ways led people to what I believe is an incorrect conclusion. The speech is amazing so it's nice to pile on the added implication that blacks would have rioted in rage had RFK (a white man) not shared words of wisdom.

But race relations in Indianapolis are a strange and complicated creature. That's true everywhere of course, but somehow it's turned out rather different in Indy. Comparatively speaking, blacks in Indy generally chose non-violent solutions over violent ones throughout the city's history.

One of my favorite examples of this is the soul/funk movement in Indy in the 70s - what's been more recently known as Naptown. Black musicians who played the clubs were sure to note in interviews given 30 years later that while the national scene was focused on this growing anger among the black community, Naptown musicians wanted to emphasize a positive racial message. There are many other examples of blacks through Indianapolis history choosing more peaceful solutions.

Whether this characteristic stemmed from a fear of white retribution (Indy has a tragic racial history), or because of something else I'm not sure. And why here and not other places, I'm also unsure. But as great and historic as this speech is, I believe the black community in the city would have reacted the same had RFK shown up or not.

One great lesson of interpreting history is to look at whom the narrative being told gives power to. The narrative of RFK giving a speech that prevents a black riot gives all the power to a white man, and robs the blacks of any sense of control. The implication is that they couldn't help themselves unless RFK said something. My guess is RFK was echoing the sentiment in Indianapolis, giving it life by giving it words, not inspiring it.
posted by beelerspace at 7:42 PM on April 4, 2010 [38 favorites]


See also this clip from a PBS documentary narrating the early days of RFK's campaign as well as the Indianapolis speech (which spills over into part 11). The comments from his contemporaries are fascinating and touching, and the parallels with Obama's 2008 campaign -- the rhetoric, the pent-up desire for change, the jam-packed rallies even in the reddest states -- are striking.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:12 PM on April 4, 2010


Thanks for posting this timsteil. This is the first I've heard of this eloquent and moving speech.
posted by storybored at 8:50 PM on April 4, 2010


I was born in 1973. I've seen this speech before, but thank you for posting it. Made my night.
posted by nevercalm at 9:28 PM on April 4, 2010


That night, I lived at 22nd and Central, about 6 blocks from the rally. As a poor white kid living in that neighborhood, I was terrified when I heard the news about the shooting. I can remember my neighbors wailing and crying out at the news, and watched mobs of people taking to the streets. I was afraid that we wouldn't live through the night. As it turned out, most of the people I was seeing were headed to the rally, which I wasn't aware of at 14 years of age. IIRC, only one television station covered the rally, and the other stations pooled and played the speech on the news that night, several times.

I didn't understand for years just how broad and penetrative the effect of RFK's speech was in the community. Sadly, his voice was stilled all too soon, as well. It was a time of absolute madness. I grew up in the middle of all this, and I'm sure it has a lot to do with my sometimes cynical view of the human race.
posted by pjern at 10:15 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


RFK was assassinated two months and two days after this speech.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:23 PM on April 4, 2010


I'm not a speech analyst but I don't hear Obama speak quite this directly about Love and Compassion and Wisdom. I could be wrong but I hear a tinge of a politician's equivocation today that I never heard in Bobby. The comparisons are fair enough, especially in regards to the campaigns and crowd reactions, but they are just comparisons, reflections and reminders to what I consider to be the real thing. RFK portrayed an uncompromising, unapologetic idealism when it came to love toward other people that served to many of us as the definition of a Good Man.
posted by victors at 10:54 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


The speech is amazing so it's nice to pile on the added implication that blacks would have rioted in rage had RFK (a white man) not shared words of wisdom.

It wasn't solely his words of wisdom, in themselves. It was the moral authority he bore as the brother of JFK. The key to his speech is right here: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to 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." RFK at that moment embodied every principle he described: forgiveness, moving forward, turning away from bitterness; had it been delivered by another white politician, even with such eloquence, I don't think it would have had the same power.

I remember coming home from school to find my mother crying in the kitchen. I'd never seen the adults I knew so devastated, so despairing.
posted by jokeefe at 10:58 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


The speech is amazing so it's nice to pile on the added implication that blacks would have rioted in rage had RFK (a white man) not shared words of wisdom.

As with many narratives about Africa, it's what the white protagonist does that's important. Frustrating.

I'm not a speech analyst but I don't hear Obama speak quite this directly about Love and Compassion and Wisdom. I could be wrong but I hear a tinge of a politician's equivocation today that I never heard in Bobby.

It's possible to respect the man, and also note that his oratory is somewhat abstract and tendentious. Nevertheless, he hasn't yet been called to make quite as emotionally visceral a speech.

The screams took me by surprise. I had forgotten that everyone didn't know everything instantly then.

There was radio (even portable hand-held radio). I suspect the screams were people who had heard of the shooting, but amid wild rumor held out hope he'd survived. Bobby simply confirmed their worst fears with the word killed.
posted by dhartung at 11:21 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a beautiful speech.

Who is the 2010 Bobby Kennedy?
posted by jabo at 12:24 AM on April 5, 2010


jabo: "Who is the 2010 Bobby Kennedy?"

Kucinich?*

* starting at 2:56, and not one second before.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:34 AM on April 5, 2010


…I can only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed…

This is the part where the bowling ball in my throat drops into my stomach.

If I could have been any Kennedy, it would have been Bobby.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:50 AM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can only offer (humbly) my own memories. My clearest recollection of being in elementary school is sitting on the steps at recess and discussing RFK's assassination with my friends. I said, "I thought he was just trying to imitate his brother." That memory haunts me. I'm sad and horrified that the 10-year-old-me chose to be so casually snarky and dismissive of the event, but in retrospect I can only imagine that by that time the gunning down of famous men must have seemed not that unusual.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:37 AM on April 5, 2010


I think it's possible that, while RFK's decision to speak could never have prevented a riot -- beelerspace's comments above about that framing removing agency from the black listeners and giving it to the white speaker is right on -- if he had chosen to cancel the speech out of fear for his safety, it might well have caused ugly feelings which may have led to a riot.
posted by KathrynT at 9:35 AM on April 5, 2010


I'm stunned every time I imagine living through '63-'68: Medgar Evers, JFK, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Malcolm X, MLK Jr., RFK, and countless others all assassinated in the span of 5 years. I'd be terrified to turn on the news at night.
posted by sallybrown at 8:16 PM on April 4
Mad Men, anyone? Kennedy died just this past season, Chaney and Schwerner are on the block. I suspect it's going to be a tough Summer.
posted by vhsiv at 4:25 PM on April 5, 2010


if JFK is killed by one of Nixon mafia league, they I assume all JFK family was the target.
posted by bohonghong at 6:12 PM on April 6, 2010


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