I am probably older than you; born on June 6, 1944. This is a time of year that brings sad memories. Robert Kennedy, who after his brother’s assassination, had become a deeply caring person, died on my birthday in 1968. I was President of the Students for Robert Kennedy at the University of Illinois. I was heartbroken. Martin Luther King had been murdered two months earlier. Kennedy, who had bonded in compassion with farm workers in California, poor black people in the Mississippi delta, and South African black people in Soweto, seemed our last hope for bringing white and black people together to create a society that would advance everyone’s wellbeing. On the night that Dr. King was killed, he landed in Indianapolis to speak to a mostly black audience. He was advised against it, but he insisted on speaking. Here is what he said:
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.
America is in deeper peril than at any time in my life. We face the realistic possibility that our president will attempt to seize dictatorial control. When I set out to write something about the difficult situation we face as a nation, I hoped to say something that would contribute to bringing us together so that all of us would visibly speak for the nation we aspire to. But I think I can do no better than to give you what Robert Kennedy said at another dark point in our nation.
Speaking in South Africa, (also on June 6 ), Kennedy emphasized the power of united action.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [sic] stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
May we all come together in love and compassion to ensure that black people have the safety, respect, and nurturance that every person has a right to.