Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968
April 4, 1968, Robert F Kennedy gave several speeches in Indiana as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. This young white man, as the United States Attorney General, along with his brother the President, had been thrust into the middle of the civil rights struggle. And then his brother was assassinated.
At Notre Dame he spoke about the Vietnam War, and told the students there that college deferments for the draft discriminated against those who could not afford to attend college, and should be eliminated. Contrasting this willingness to speak the truth even when it is unpopular, and might cost votes, makes for a very sad commentary on the state of politics today.
After speaking about racism at Ball State, an African American student said, “Your speech implies that you are placing a great deal of faith in white America. Is that faith justified?” Kennedy answered “Yes” and added that “faith in black America is justified, too” although he said there “are extremists on both sides.” Before boarding a plane to fly to Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. On the plane, Kennedy told a reporter “You know, it grieves me. . . that I just told that kid this and then walk out and find that some white man has just shot their spiritual leader.”
It wasn’t until the flight had nearly arrived in Indianapolis that he learned Martin Luther King, Jr, had died of his wounds. There wasn’t time to write something to cover this news. The Indianapolis event was to be held at a park in a predominately black neighborhood near downtown. The Indianapolis police and city leaders tried to get him to cancel the speech, telling him they couldn’t protect him if there was a riot. Rioting did break out in many cities that day.
But he insisted. At the park, from the back of a flatbed truck, he said:
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,
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.
The text of this speech is displayed at Robert Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC.
Below are some photos from the Kennedy-King Park, where the speech was delivered, in Indianapolis.