The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Words of Robert Kennedy

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Chicago columnist Mike Royko moved many with a column he wrote after the national tragedy.

It was one of the most dramatic and poignant moments in American history. Some describe it as one of the greatest speeches ever made.

Journalist Joe Klein has called it "politics in its grandest form and highest purpose" and said that it "marked the end of an era" before American political life was taken over by consultants and pollsters. It is also recounted in the prologue of his book, Politics Lost.

The speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was given on April 4, 1968, by New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who was  assassinated two months later). Kennedy was campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination and had spoken at the University of Notre Dame and Ball State University earlier that day.

Before boarding a plane to fly to Indianapolis for one last campaign speech in a predominantly black neighborhood of the city, he learned that Martin Luther King had been shot.  Kennedy press secretary Frank Mankiewicz  suggested that he ask the audience to pray for the King family and ask them to follow King's deeply-held belief in non-violence.  They did not learn that King was dead until they landed in Indianapolis.

Both Mankiewicz and speechwriter Adam Walinsky drafted notes immediately before the rally for Kennedy's use, but Kennedy chose to use some that he had likely written on the ride over. Mankiewicz arrived after Kennedy had already begun to speak. Prior to arriving at the rally, the Chief of Police in Indianapolis told Kennedy that he could not provide protection and that giving the remarks would be too dangerous. Standing on a podium mounted on a flatbed truck, Kennedy spoke for just four minutes and fifty-seven seconds.

Robert F. Kennedy was the first to inform the audience of the death of Martin Luther King, causing some in the audience to scream and wail. Several of Kennedy's aides were even worried that the delivery of this information would result in a riot.

Screenshot of Robert Kennedy speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis the night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's death.Once the audience quieted down, Kennedy acknowledged that many in the audience would be filled with anger. But then Kennedy went on: "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."

These remarks surprised Kennedy aides, who had never heard him speak publicly of John F. Kennedy's death. Kennedy continued, saying that the country had to make an effort to "go beyond these rather difficult times," and then quoted a poem by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, on the theme of the wisdom that comes, against one's will, from pain.  Kennedy said that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites, asked the audience members to pray for the King family and the country, and once more quoted the ancient Greeks.

The speech was credited in part with preventing post-assassination rioting in Indianapolis, where it was given, though there were riots in many other parts of the country. It is widely considered one of the most important speeches in American history.

Joe Klein told NPR: “Well, when I first started thinking about writing this book, I tried to search my memory for an example of real true political nobility, and this came to mind immediately.

"It was the night that Martin Luther King was killed. Kennedy was supposed to speak in the Indianapolis ghetto that night, and he lands in Indianapolis, the police chief tells him we're not going to be able to protect you because we're going to protect the rest of the city from the African-Americans who they assume are going to start rioting as soon as they find out that Martin Luther King has been killed. Well, Kennedy goes in there anyway, and members of his staff scribble some notes, some talking points for him and he just dismisses them with a curt wave of his hand and he gets up in front of this audience, which still hasn't heard about Martin Luther King's death, and he tells them that King has died.

From an NPR interview with  Joe Klein:

Then Senator Kennedy speaks to the crowd: “I have very sad news for all of you and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

(Soundbite of people screaming)

 “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, it's pressed well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. You can be filled with bitterness and with hatred or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with compassion and love.

KLEIN: Gradually, he senses how respectful they are of him, I think. I think it's very clear when you listen to it. And he does something that his staff is completely amazed by; he talks about the death of his own brother, which is something that he had never done in public. And you know, I can't tell you it was directly related, but Indianapolis was one of the very few American cities that didn't explode in flames over the next few days.

"Robert Kennedy: Delivering News of King's Death"  at NPR's Morning Edition, April, 2008 The report contains audio recording of Kennedy's remarks.

Many people were also moved by a column written by Mike Royko in the Chicago Daily News on April 4, 1968:

Millions in his firing squad  

FBI agents are looking for the man who pulled the trigger and surely they will find him.

But it doesn't matter if they do or they don't. They can't catch everybody, and Martin Luther King was executed by a firing squad that numbered in the millions.

They took part, from all over the country, pouring words of hate into the ear of the assassin.

The man with the gun did what he was told. Millions of bigots, subtle and obvious, put it in his hand and assured him he was doing the right thing.

It would be easy to point at the Southern redneck and say he did it. But what of the Northern disk-jockey-turned-commentator, with his slippery words of hate every morning?

What about the Northern mayor who steps all over every poverty program advancement, thinking only of political expediency, until riots fester, whites react with more hate and the gap between the races grows bigger?

Toss in the congressman with the stupid arguments against busing. And the pathetic women who turn out with eggs in their hands to throw at children.

Let us not forget the law-and-order type politicians who are in favor of arresting all Negro prostitutes in the vice districts. When you ask them to vote for laws that would eliminate some of the causes of prostitution, they babble like the boobs they are…

They all took their place in King's firing squad.

And behind them were the subtle ones, those who never say anything bad but just nod when the bigot throws out his strong opinions.

He is actually the worst, the nodder is, because sometimes he believes differently but he says nothing. He doesn't want to cause trouble. For Pete's sake, don't cause trouble!

So when his brother-in-law or his card-playing buddy from across the alley spews out the racial filth, he nods.

Give some credit to the most subtle of the subtle. That distinction belongs to the FBI, now looking for King's killer.

That agency took part in a mudslinging campaign against him that to this day demands an investigation.

The bullet that hit King came from all directions. Every two-bit politician or incompetent editorial writer found in him, not themselves, the cause of our racial problems.

It was almost ludicrous. The man came on the American scene preaching nonviolence from the first day he sat at the wrong end of a bus. He preached it in the North and was hit with rocks. He talked it the day he was murdered.

Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ. Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.

Maybe it was the simplicity of his goal that confused people or the way he dramatized it.

He wanted only that black Americans have their constitutional rights, that they get an equal shot at this country's benefits, the same thing we give to the last guy who jumped off the boat.

So we killed him. Just as we killed Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. No other country kills so many of its best people.

Last Sunday night the President said he was quitting after this term. He said this country is so filled with hate it might help if he got out. Four days later we killed a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

We have pointed a gun at our own head and we are squeezing the trigger. And nobody we elect is going to help us. It is our head and our finger.

 

Book cover: Roebert Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana PrimaryRobert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary by Ray E. Boomhower explores the characters and events of the 1968 Indiana Democratic presidential primary in which Kennedy, who was an underdog, had a decisive victory. The IU Press blog interviewed Boomhower about his book:

You were only 9 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, but even at that young age, Kennedy appears to have made an impression on you. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for writing this book?

One of the seminal memories of my childhood growing up in Mishawaka, Indiana, was sitting in the living room of our home on West Battell Street and watching Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral on television. Even at that young age, I could not believe that someone so young and vibrant could be snatched away like that in the blink of an eye. I told my mother, Joyce, as she walked into the room, that I hoped someone—anyone—would kill the person responsible for this horror.

Perhaps my mother remembered the death of another young politician—President John F. Kennedy—and the subsequent shooting of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Perhaps she had watched on television as Ruby rushed up to Oswald as authorities were taking him from police headquarters to the nearby county jail on November 24, 1963. All I know for sure is that my mother reproached me for my remark, noting that Robert Kennedy had been known as a compassionate man who, because of the tragedy in his own family, abhorred such violence and had worked to heal, not harm.

My late mother’s words that day have stayed with me and, perhaps, were the impetus behind my research and writing about Kennedy’s famous speech in Indianapolis following the killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Several challenges—negative local press, the formidable opponents of Eugene McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Branigin, and late entry in to the Democratic primary race—faced Kennedy during his 1968 run in Indiana. How did he overcome these obstacles to achieve a victory in Indiana?

Kennedy realized that entering the Indiana primary was a gamble and realized he needed to make an all-out effort to win the state. “Indiana is the ballgame,” Kennedy said. As one of his aides later recalled, a loss in Indiana could have derailed the entire campaign, so the senator’s staff and friends flocked to the state and worked long hours on his behalf. Nobody, however, worked harder than the candidate himself. He campaigned furiously and often ended the day with his hands raw and sometimes bloody after shaking countless hands of would-be voters. Through the force of his own character, Kennedy convinced often skeptical Hoosiers of the sincerity of his beliefs. In doing so, he also honed his message and became a better candidate for the primaries to come.

Kennedy also benefited from having the advice of a man—John Bartlow Martin—who knew the state’s history and the character of its people. Martin, who produced one of the best books ever written about the state, Indiana: An Interpretation, played a key role in the campaign and offered Kennedy vital information on every community he visited leading up to primary voting on May 7.

At an outdoor rally in the heart of Indianapolis’s African American community, Kennedy delivered the news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His speech is considered one of the greats in American political history. Describe the impact it had upon the crowd gathered at the rally.

Those who were a part of the crowd that gathered on April 4, 1968, at Seventeenth and Broadway streets, to hear Kennedy, blacks and whites alike, compared what they saw and heard to a religious experience. The candidate had reached out and touched their hearts with his words calling for compassion and understanding in the face of violence and bloodshed. One of the people I interviewed for the book who was at the speech remembered feeling as if the candidate had “laid his hands upon the audience” and healed them, deflating the powerful anger that surged through the packed audience. The crowd, another person recalled, walked away in pain, but with no thoughts of revenge. While countless cities across the country exploded in violence, Indianapolis remained calm.

Some in the media are comparing Obama’s run for presidency to RFK’s. What similarities do you see between the two men’s campaigns? Any key differences?

Both Obama and Kennedy seem to share a certain charisma that has attracted a large a devoted following of people who have never before been involved in politics. Obama’s appeal to young, college-age voters, however, reminds me more of the campaign of the other Democratic candidate in 1968—Eugene McCarthy. Attracted by his McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy and defiance of incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, college students from across the country shaved off their beards, cut their hair, and became “Clean for Gene.” Obama seems to generate the same level of enthusiasm from his young supporters as McCarthy did. Obama also shares McCarthy’s eloquence on the stump. Kennedy always did better interacting with audiences on a one-on-one basis during question and answer sessions, as compared to delivering a set stump speech.

How do you think the course of history might have changed if Robert Kennedy had been elected president?

I always get this question when doing talks on my book to audiences. I always remind people that Kennedy faced a tough fight to even win the Democratic nomination at the Chicago convention in August. While he and McCarthy were battling each other in the various primaries, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had announced his candidacy too late to enter any of the primaries, was traveling around the country picking up sizable blocks of delegates from state party conventions and caucuses. Johnson, no fan of Kennedy, would also have done everything he could to deny his rival the Democratic Party’s top prize. Kennedy’s own staff said the odds were 50-50 that he would capture the nomination from Humphrey.

Still, if Kennedy had won the nomination and beaten his GOP opponent, Richard Nixon, in the fall, a Kennedy administration probably would have removed American troops from Vietnam much sooner than did the Nixon administration. Without Nixon as president, of course, there would have been no Watergate scandal, and perhaps Americans mistrust and suspicions of politicians in Washington, D.C., might have been allayed for a time. Kennedy has also made increasing benefits for Social Security recipients an issue during the Indiana primary, which might have resulted in a closer and earlier look at the solvency of the system.

 

Visit your local library to learn more.

Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary
Ray E. Boomhower, (2008).

Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who think that You're Stupid
Joe Klein, (2006).
In 1948 when Harry S. Truman accepted the Democratic nomination, his spontaneous reference to Turnip Day in Missouri evoked a candor and authenticity that later helped him win the presidency. Klein, author of Primary Colors (1995), frames much of his analysis in the context of Truman’s remark. Unfortunately, political consultants have been intent on purging Turnip Day spontaneity in favor of poll-based, risk-averse blandness that bodes ill for American democracy. Most modern candidates have allowed consultants to market them to the point that they will never deviate off message and buy into packaged campaigns based entirely on research.  This is a passionate, often hysterical, but ultimately sad look at modern American politics. — Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published March 15, 2006 (Booklist).

Robert Kennedy: His Life
Thomas, Evan (2000).

Robert Kennedy and His Times
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,  (1978).

Kennedy, Robert F. “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (speech, Indianapolis, IN, 1968-04-04), American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank. Retrieved 2012-05-02.

 

 

Images:

1. Article illustration:
Photograph of White House Meeting with Civil Rights Leaders. June 22, 1963
Photograph of meeting with Civil Rights leaders. Front Row Martin, Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Roy Wilkins, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Walter P. Reuther, Whitney M. Young, A Philip Randolph Second Row Second From Left Rosa Gragg Top Row Third From Left James Farmer.
Department of the Interior. National Park Service. (1916 - 1933), Photographer (NARA record: 1185522).

2. Screenshot of Robert F. Kennedy giving a speech on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. during a campaign stop in Indiana.

3. Book cover:Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary by Ray E. Boomhower.
 

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