To the stunned members of Indianapolis’ black community on the night of April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy dispensed grace straight from his heart, drawing on his personal credibility as a fellow victim of violence. He intended to cancel all campaign events until after Dr. King’s funeral, but John Lewis (who had advanced the April 4 trip) urged him to speak at greater length against violence, particularly in light of the paroxysm of rioting that swept across the country, sparing Indianapolis. So Kennedy kept one public event on April 5 – remarks to the largely white Cleveland City Club. Unlike the previous evening, this speech was carefully (if quickly) crafted by Kennedy’s speechwriting team (particularly Jeff Greenfield and Adam Walinsky) on the road, in dialogue with the candidate himself.
His objectives were clear: condemning violence as wrong and shortsighted, regardless of the cause; acceptance of a “rising tide” of violence in nearly every community; and pivoting from the scenes in the streets to the equally deadly “violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow delay.” What followed (audio available under the “Audio & Video” tab) was timeless for its eloquence and for the challenge it issued, which remains unanswered:
“This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all…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, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
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. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution. But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Photo: Ray Matjasic, The Plain Dealer, File, 1968