On this day in 1968 Robert Kennedy was brutally murdered. The speech he made following the murder of Martin Luther King starkly and poignantly speaks into our own times, to the tragedy of George Floyd’s death. It challenges us to ask what has changed—and what remains the same—more than 50 years later.
I was a a school boy at the time of Robert Kennedy’s death. He and Martin Luther King were great heroes of mine.
Their killings convinced me that each of us, in our own small ways, have to do whatever we can to stand up for justice and for those who are oppressed – and however cynical you become about politics and politicians it is worth remembering that there are causes worth championing and that we have the privileged freedom to do so.
Robert Kennedy’s speech, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, includes references to Aeschylus, and an immortal line of Tennyson’s (from his poem Ulysses) which formed the title to some of his visionary speeches “To seek a newer world..” As a friend said to me: “wisdom for our own times.” Another said his speech “offers a stark lesson in what has changed—and what remains the same—more than 50 years later.”
Fifty years ago Kennedy said:
“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.”
The video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoKzCff8Zbs