Let us say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love. – Robert F. Kennedy, April 4,1968; Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King
One hour after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in an era long before 24-hour television news, the internet, and social media, Senator Robert F. Kennedy addressed a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis. He told them the somber news and pled for peace:
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.
It was Robert Kennedy’s second week of his primary campaign for the Democrat nomination for president. His speech was unexpectedly—unprecedentedly—personal. Vulnerable. He acknowledged and shared the crowd’s grief:
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.
Political journalist Joe Klein, in his book Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid describes how the unrehearsed awkwardness of this sentence—“ I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man”—indicates Senator Kennedy’s “raw” sincerity. He shared the humanity of his audience.
In the days following King’s assassination, riots exploded throughout American cities. But not in Indianapolis. Kennedy’s speech is credited for enabling Indianapolis to avoid riots, and is considered one of the best American speeches of the 20th Century.
America in 2021 again sees great political turmoil and divisiveness. As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. for his commitment to nonviolence and justice, let us ask, along with Robert Kennedy and the crowd in Indianapolis that day: “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.”
Let us heed Kennedy’s advice and say a prayer for America, which all of us love.
Notes & Additional Resources
Kennedy, Robert F. “Statement on the assassination of Martin Luther King.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 4 Apr. 1968. Gale Literature: LitFinder, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A266988218/LITF?u=pl3410r&sid=LITF&xid=cf367aa3. Accessed 17 Jan. 2021.