We follow the intertwined fates of Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy – two men who were linked in tragedy. Following the first part here, Christopher Benedict continues his piece on the awful spring of 1968 by considering the words of Kennedy following King’s assassination, and still more tragic events in June 1968.
Binding a Nation’s Wounds
Ted Sorensen, an old family friend as well as President John F. Kennedy’s Special Counselor and main speechwriter, remembers receiving a phone call at his home in Washington DC the night of April 4, 1968 from Robert Kennedy who “asked for my thoughts on a speech scheduled for the next day in Cleveland, saying he would call me back in an hour. When he hung up, I scribbled as quickly as I could on scraps of paper - with the assassination of King in my mind, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy in my heart.”
Bobby also enlisted the guidance of Jeff Greenfield and Adam Walinsky who would assist in composing an earnest plea for nonviolence and national unity to be delivered during a luncheon at Cleveland’s City Club, the only campaign commitment over the course of the following week that a grief-stricken Kennedy was intent to follow through with. It proved to be a logical extension of his spontaneous remarks made the previous evening and, taken together, Robert Kennedy’s finest hours.
Cause and Effect of Institutional Violence
“This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics,” Bobby insisted at the outset of his oration. “It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed.”
Channeling Abraham Lincoln, who had been elevated one century before Bobby’s own brother to the status of bipartisan patron saint, Kennedy reiterated the Great Emancipator’s sentiments that “Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.” But this was no mere occasion for soothing the nation’s injuries with the placebo of lofty rhetoric and well-chosen but ultimately trivial quotation. Kennedy opted instead to pry inside those wounds and diagnose the root causes of the collective systemic traumas now and for centuries before plaguing its inhabitants.
“There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly and destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Allowing that “I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies, nor is there a single set,” Bobby continues to caution how “when you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest. To be subjugated and mastered.”
“We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens,” Kennedy forges ahead, “men with whom we share a city but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other. Only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.”
“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land,” Kennedy concludes his prognosis. “Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen again.”
A Dream Dead and Buried
Martin Luther King’s funeral and burial took place on April 7 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Besides Bobby, Ethel and Jackie Kennedy, among the faces in the crowd of mourners could be seen Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Jimmy Breslin, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Conspicuous by his absence was President Lyndon Johnson, explained by Kennedy as being due to a “lack of physical courage”. Bobby was involved in a brief but very telling exchange with Charles Evers, the sibling of black activist Medgar Evers who was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi only hours after John F. Kennedy had given his nationally televised address on civil rights which itself followed Robert’s showdown with George Wallace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that afternoon.
“Do you think this will change anything?” Bobby asked as they walked side by side in the procession, referring to King’s assassination.
“Nothing,” Charles replied. “Didn’t mean nothing when my brother was killed.”
“I know,” commiserated Bobby. His own funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was less than two months away.
Dreams of Things That Never Were
Having sweated out a four percentage-point victory over McCarthy in the all-important California primary, Kennedy took the stage of the Ambassador Hotel’s Embassy Ballroom ten minutes after midnight on June 5. Ethel stood proudly by his side and her bodyguard Rosey Grier, former Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the NFL’s Giants and Rams, looked on approvingly and towered menacingly from the rear of the crowded rostrum.
Minutes later, Grier would be one of several people in the Ambassador’s kitchen wrestling the pistol away from Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian disgruntled with Kennedy’s statements in support of Israel, still pulling the trigger as they did so. Also involved in the fracas were journalists and novelists Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, and Budd Schulberg - the author, boxing scribe, and screenwriter of On the Waterfront who had taken Bobby to visit his Watts Writers Workshop a few days before and had been hand-picked to script a film version of The Enemy Within, Kennedy’s 1960 account of The McLellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions which would never go before cameras.
Humble, hopeful, and grateful yet clearly weary, the Senator spent the majority of his speech sweeping the bangs of his unruly hair from his eyes and thanking the specific members of his staff who had worked so diligently and effectively on his behalf. Well aware that Gene McCarthy was going nowhere and indeed dug in for a fight to the finish in the political trenches, Bobby had good reason to be confident and cautiously optimistic.
“And now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” Robert F. Kennedy concluded with a boyish grin. The index and middle fingers of his right hand extended upward.
V for victory?
A peace sign?
In the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, I like to think it was both.
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- The Days of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jim Bishop (1971, Putnam)
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (1998, Warner Books)
- Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman (1998, Bantam)
- Robert Kennedy: A Memoir by Jack Newfield (1969, Dutton)
- RFK: Collected Speeches edited by Edwin O. Guthman and C. Richard Allen (1993, Viking)
- Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History by Ted Sorensen (2008, Harper Collins)
- Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)