On the night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had announced his decision to run for president, was campaigning in Indiana when the news came of Dr. King’s assassination. He movingly shared the terrible news with the waiting crowd of mostly Black people, urging them not to hate and reminding them that a White man had killed his brother too, and spoke even in that terrible heartbreaking moment about his vision for what America could be:
“[Y]ou 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….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….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…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.”
It was a spontaneous message of compassion and hope and nonviolence that epitomized Senator Kennedy as the human being he was and leader he had become after his brother’s tragic assassination. Our dark, deep despair at Dr. King’s death was leavened only by the fact that we still had Robert Kennedy who if elected president might not only end the war in Vietnam but finish waging the needed war against poverty that should have no room in rich America. But two months and two days later, Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet on my birthday, June 6, 1968. I never wore the beautiful bracelet my fiancé Peter Edelman, Senator Kennedy’s legislative assistant, had bought at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as a birthday present.
As I walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City where Robert Kennedy’s body lay in state, a weeping Charles Evers, slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers’ brother, clung to me asking over and over, “What are we going to do now?” Riding the train from New York City to Washington, D.C. bearing Robert Kennedy’s body, I was deeply moved by the stricken faces of young and old, Black and White who lined the train route and mirrored my stricken heart. The single most poignant moment for me was when the hearse carrying Robert Kennedy’s body to rest near his brother John Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery crossed Memorial Bridge and paused for a brief time at the Lincoln Memorial allowing the poor people still in Resurrection City from the Poor People’s Campaign to bid farewell while singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was Robert Kennedy’s last campaign.
The day after Dr. King was murdered Robert Kennedy gave us another message that fifty years later is as true and urgent as ever. He spoke about the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives”: “It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are Black and White, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.”
He continued. “We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire….This much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul. For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, 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 a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
He added: “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….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.”
Although Senator Robert Kennedy’s life was snuffed out before he could finish the work he set out to do, he left a powerful legacy and charge for those who seek to fulfill his vision and change America’s violent course. “Each time a man 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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on Mom’s Rising.