Robert F. Kennedy: Fifty Years Later

Posted on: June 5, 2018, by :

By Jeff Turner

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Francis Kennedy. His death is often remembered as the third major assassination in the United States of the turbulent 1960’s, the other two being the assassinations of his brother President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th, 1968.

Kennedy came to Indianapolis more than fifty years ago, and was scheduled to make a campaign stop on April 4th, 1968. However, he was informed by his advisers that King had been assassinated that night and was advised to cancel the appearance. Nonetheless, Kennedy did deliver a short speech, one that left an indelible impact on a nation grieving.

After informing the audience of King’s assassination, Kennedy said: “In this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are… For those of you who are black—considering that the evidence suggests 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… Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King Jr. 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.”

Robert F. Kennedy campaigns in Detroit, May 1968. Photo by Andrew Sacks/saxpix.com

This call for empathy and forgiveness is relevant even today, in the hyper-partisan, polarized Age of Trump. Kennedy went even further, encouraging those African-Americans in the audience filled with resentment and mistrust towards all white people as a result of King’s death: “I can only say that I feel in my 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… What we need in the United States is not division…is not hatred…not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.”

Many cite this speech, arguably the best Kennedy ever delivered, as the reason why violence didn’t erupt in Indianapolis that night, as it did in many other cities across the country.

“I was here fifty years ago,” said Tom Wallace, Chairman of the Morgan County Democratic Party, at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony for King’s death, held at the same park where Kennedy delivered his speech. “It was cold, not like today.”

It actually was a rather cold day when the ceremony was being held April 4th, though most likely he was referring to something more than the actual weather, more in regards to the atmosphere that night. That same park on 17th and Broadway is now a National Commemorative Site. There is no doubt that many in Indianapolis still remember Robert Kennedy’s speech. My Grandmother actually had a pamphlet from Kennedy’s 1968 campaign that she had saved since his assassination. On it was written his platform were he to be elected President, which included expanded civil rights protections as well as addressing the conflict in Vietnam.

The Landmark for Peace Memorial Sculpture at that same park (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park) today features statues of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. reaching out towards one another, a gesture of coming together, though one that serves as a haunting tribute.

Of course, Kennedy and King were acquainted with each other. Ironically, according to several sources, Kennedy, while serving as his brother’s Attorney General, authorized wiretaps of King’s phone in the early 1960’s. It is clear that Kennedy was not as warm towards the Civil Rights Movement early on, though his views evolved throughout the 1960’s. His speech in Indianapolis that night in April 1968 clearly shows that evolution.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb at the Commemoration Ceremony in April of this year said during his remarks, in regards to King’s death: “Imagine, had it not happened, what would the world be like?”

That is a question many have undoubtedly asked themselves. But I also wonder what this world would be like had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated. He would have most likely won the Democratic nomination in 1968 and would also probably have gone on to defeat Richard Nixon. But ultimately we’ll never know what would have happened had Sirhan Sirhan not been at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy gave his speech after winning the California primary on June 6th, 1968. Both Kennedy and King tragically met their ends that year, roughly two months apart.

One of the most famous quotes (mis)attributed to Robert Kennedy was actually said by his brother Ted during his eulogy for brother on June 8th, 1968: “Some men see things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and say why not?”

All we can do is imagine what type of world both Kennedy and King would have liked to see, while at the same time working to make this country the type of country both men would have longed to see.

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