On the Mindless Menace of Violence

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Cleveland, Ohio

April 5, 1968

[From: RFK: His Words for Our Time]

After King’s death, Kennedy canceled all campaign appearances and withdrew to his Indianapolis hotel; however, various black leaders convinced him to keep a scheduled address to Cleveland’s City Club the next day and to transform it into a plea for nonviolence.  Both the killing of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the rage and riots that followed his death were on Kennedy’s mind as he asked speech writers, Adam Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield (with the candidate on the road), to work by phone with his brother’s principal draftsman, Ted Sorensen (in New York).

Kennedy himself was juxtaposing King’s assassination with others from the turbulent decade, especially the death in Dallas. Normally after a day of campaigning, he would retire to his hotel room. The night of April 4, he sat up with his aides, although he was frequently withdrawn. He eventually left, then returned to the room where Walinsky and Greenfield were working. Sitting down on a bed, he was silent for a time, then said, “You know, that fellow Harvey Lee Oswald,4 whatever his name is, set something loose in this country.” Greenfield and Walinsky, struggling to finish the draft, passed out over their typewriters in the predawn hours. Kennedy, uncharacteristically unable to sleep and (in Walinsky’s words) “prowling around,” happened upon his young aides, shut off the light, and sent them off for a few hours’ rest. As he left Greenfield, the latter said to his boss, “You aren’t so ruthless after all.” With a smile, Kennedy replied, “Don’t tell anybody.”

The candidate reviewed the speech draft as he left for Cleveland, and editing changes were still under way as the plane landed. Despite its overnight, collaborative production, its anguished eloquence would be remembered two months later, when Kennedy himself lay dying.

To a hushed luncheon crowd, mostly white executives, Kennedy spoke softly but with obvious deep emotion.

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics.

I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you 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 and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason. Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily— whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence— whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.”

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far- off lands.

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 whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing 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 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.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies, nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. 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.

Kennedy left Cleveland for Washington, where fires raged throughout the nation’s capital. Soldiers in full battle gear, deployed on tanks and armored personnel carriers, attempted to keep the curfew.

On Sunday, April 7, he walked the riot- torn neighborhoods with D.C. City Councilman the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who remembered that “the stench of burning wood and broken glass were all over the place. We walked the streets. The troops were on duty. A crowd gathered behind us, following Bobby Kennedy. The troops saw us coming at a distance, and they put on their gas masks and got the guns at ready, waiting for this horde of blacks coming up the street. When they saw it was Bobby Kennedy, they took off their masks and let us through. They looked awfully relieved.”

Read more: RFK: His Words for Our Times is available at bookstores and online, including here: https://amazon.com/RFK-His-Words-Our-Times/dp/006283410X/.  Video excerpts from this speech are available here; just scroll down the page

RFK on His Own: Speech to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Dinner, March 17, 1964

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[From RFK: His Words for Our Times (Wm Morrow, 2018) (C) Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen]

After JFK’s death on November 22, 1963, Robert Kennedy did not appear before a large American audience until he spoke at a Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nearly four months later. He went reluctantly and only after insistent urging by the powerful, canny Representative Dan Flood of Wilkes- Barre, for through the crushing weeks following JFK’s death, he had been desolate: holding his grief inwardly, functioning tautly, and wondering bleakly what he would do with his life.

As spring approached he showed signs of perking up, but one often saw, just below the surface, signs of a new somberness and fatalism, caused not only by the trauma of the assassination but also by the realization that any decision he would make about his future would probably depend on events beyond his control.

Scranton marked a turning point.

When the Kennedy family’s plane, the Caroline, landed at Wilkes-Barre Scranton Airport on an overcast afternoon, more than two thousand people, most of them young, broke through police lines and, jumping, shouting, and laughing, they crowded in so tightly trying to touch Kennedy that he could not move from the bottom of the ramp until police cleared a path.

He was taken to Scranton to officiate at ground- breaking ceremonies for the new John F. Kennedy Elementary School, and then he was driven to nearby Yatesville to speak briefly at a St. Patrick’s Day dinner. Heavy, wet snow had begun to fall, and along the route about ten thousand men, women, and children huddled under umbrellas to catch a glimpse of him. They were still lining the road when he drove back to Scranton an hour later.

His appearance before the Friendly Sons at the Hotel Casey in Scranton was one of the most difficult he ever made. He had drafted a sentimental Irish speech, and for the ending he had written: “I like to think— as did President Kennedy— that the emerald thread runs into the cloth we weave today . . . and I like to think that his policies will survive and continue, as the cause of Irish freedom survived the death of the Liberator, Owen Roe O’Neill.”

He planned to close with a poem written after O’Neill’s death, when grief overwhelmed Ireland, which ended:

We’re sheep without a shepherd

When the snow shuts out the sky—

Oh! Why did you leave us, Owen?

Why did you die?

Ed Guthman eliminated the poem while working into the speech some changes Kennedy wanted.

“Why did you do that?” Kennedy asked.

“Because you’ll never get through it,” Guthman said.

“I’ve been practicing in front of a mirror,” Kennedy said. “I can’t get through it yet— but I will!”

And in the hotel’s grand ballroom he did— just barely; but among the stalwart sons of Erin in the audience, many a man wept openly.

Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County

Scranton, Pennsylvania

March 17, 1964

“I’m aware, of course, of the notable number of sons of St. Patrick who live here in Scranton, and as a son of St. Patrick myself, I know how friendly you’ve always been— to President Kennedy in everything he did— and to me whenever I’ve been here.

So I think of these things in addition to the bonds of common kinship that the Irish everywhere feel on St. Patrick’s Day. This is the day, you know, when legend has it that three requests were granted to St. Patrick by an angel of the Lord, in order to bring happiness and hope to the Irish.

First, that on this day the weather should always be fair to allow the faithful to attend church. Second, that on every Thursday and Saturday, twelve Irish souls should be freed from the pains of hell. And, third, that no outlander should ever rule over Ireland.

Though I have not received the latest weather report from the Emerald Isle, I am confident that no rain fell there today— officially. Who pays heed to a little Irish mist?

And I have reason to believe that the twelve Irishmen have been regularly released from the nether regions as promised. [U.S. District] Judge [William J.J.] Nealon just told me he thinks that several of them are here tonight.

We need have no concern over the third promise; in Ireland they are celebrating this day in freedom and liberty. But you and I know that life was not always this good for the Irish, either back in the old country or here in America.

There was, for example, that black day in February 1847 when it was announced in the House of Commons that fifteen thousand people a day were dying of starvation in Ireland . . .

So the Irish left Ireland. Many of them came here to the United States. They left behind hearts and fields and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears, and an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.”

This country offered great advantages, even then. But no one familiar with the story of the Irish here would underrate the difficulties they faced after landing in the United States. As the first of the racial minorities, our forefathers were subject to every discrimination found wherever discrimination is known.

But many of them were gifted with boundless confidence that served them so well. One was a pugilist from my native Boston. John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight championship of the world not too many years after the flood tide of Irish emigration to this country, and in 1887 he toured the British Isles in triumph.

Some idea of Irish progress can be gathered from his cordial greeting to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. John L. said: “I’m proud to meet you. If you ever come to Boston be sure to look me up. I’ll see that you’re treated right.”

And, referring to the Prince, he later added with Irish generosity “Anyone can see he’s a gentleman. He’s the kind of man you’d like to introduce to your family.”

Irish progress here has continued. It was some time ago that the late Fred Allen defined the “lace curtain Irish” as those who “have fruit in the house when no one’s sick.”

But it was less than nine months ago when President Kennedy, in touring Ireland, used to ask the crowds he talked with how many had cousins in America. The usual response was for nearly every hand in the crowd to be raised. It was with great delight that he was able to reply: “I’ve seen them, and they’re doing well.” And so, it is my great delight to be with you here tonight as we take a few moments to share the rich heritage of the Irish.

It’s worth noting, I think, that all the wealth of our legacy stems from a small island in the far Atlantic with a population one quarter the size of the state of Pennsylvania. The Irish have survived persecution in their own land and discrimination in ours. They have emerged from the shadow of subjugation into the sunlight of personal liberty and national independence. And they have shared the struggles for freedom of more than a score of nations across the globe . . .

Indeed, Ireland’s chief export has been neither potatoes nor linen but exiles and immigrants who have fought with sword and pen for freedom around the earth . . .

And other Irishmen in other years, going into battle with the Union Army— a green sprig in their hats— bore the brunt of the hopeless assaults on the Confederate heights at Fredericksburg.

Twelve hundred soldiers of the Irish Brigade went into action that bitterly cold December day in 1862. Only 280 survived, as President Kennedy noted last summer when he presented the brigade’s battle flag to the Irish people. “Never were men so brave,” General Robert E. Lee said of the Irish Brigade.

And of themselves, the Irish soldiers said:

     War-battered dogs are we,

     Gnawing a naked bone;

     Fighters in every land and clime

     For every cause but our own.

Today the Irish enjoy their freedom at a time when millions of people live in deprivation and despair under totalitarian dictatorships stretching eastward from the Wall in Berlin to th troubled borders of South Vietnam . . .

So the first point I’d like to make arises from the traditional Irish concern for freedom— everywhere. I know of few in our land— and I hope none in this room— who would ignore threats to peace and freedom in far- off places. We realized, as John Boyle O’Reilly once wrote, that:

     The world is large, when its weary leagues

     Two loving hearts divide;

     But the world is small, when your enemy

     Is loose on the other side.

No problem weighs heavier on the conscience of free men than the fate of millions in iron captivity. But what is taking place on the other side of the Iron Curtain should not be the only matter of concern to us who are committed to freedom. I would hope that none here would ignore the current struggle of some of our fellow citizens right here in the United States for their measure of freedom. In considering this, it may be helpful for us to recall some other conditions that existed in Ireland from 1691 until well in the nineteenth century again, which our forefathers fought.

We might remember, for instance, that in Ireland of 1691 no Irish Catholic could vote, serve on a jury, enter a university, become a lawyer, work for the government, or marry a Protestant. And our pride in the progress of the Irish is chilled by the tragic irony that it has not been progress for everyone.

We know that it has not been progress for humanity. I know because so much work of th Department of Justice today is devoted to securing these or comparable rights for all Americans in the United States in 1964.

There are Americans who— as the Irish did— still face discrimination in employment— sometimes open, sometimes hidden. There are cities in America today that are torn with strife over whether the Negro should be allowed to drive a garbage truck; and there are walls of silent conspiracy that block the progress of others because of race or creed, without regard to ability.

It is toward concern for these issues— and vigorous participation on the side of freedom— that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to this heritage, we cannot stand aside.

There are two other areas of concern which I feel are of paramount importance and to which the Irish tradition speaks in ringing tones. One is the status of freedom in colonies, and second our relationship to the underdeveloped nations of the world.

The greatest enemy of freedom today, of course, is Communism, tyranny that holds its captives in viselike subjugation on a global scale. For nearly twenty years we and our allies have striven to halt the Communist advance. But one of the weaknesses in our common fear has been the restraint on freedom sponsored by our allies and accepted by ourselves.

The conduct of our foreign affairs should be consistently based on our recognition of ever man’s rights to be economically and politically free. This is in the American tradition. We were, after all, the victor in our own war for independence. We promulgated the Monroe

Doctrine and the Open Door Policy with their clear warnings to the colonial powers of Europe.

We gave self- determination to our own dependencies, and for more than a century we opposed colonial exploitation elsewhere.

But throughout all this we were still living largely in splendid isolation, removed from a direct control of world destiny. This was changed by World War II.

The frontiers of our national security became the frontiers of the world. We found ourselves obliged to deal with the harsh facts of existence on a global basis. For the sake of our own security, we found our destiny to be closely linked with that of nations that maintained large colonial empires on which they felt their ultimate security depended.

In some of the underdeveloped countries we have found our destiny linked with ruling powers or classes which hold the vast majority of their people in economic or military subjugation.

It is easy for us to believe that the imperialism of the West was infinitely preferable to the tyranny of Communism. But the sullen hostility of the African and Asian colonial nations has shown us that not all hold the same view. The bloody struggles for liberty from the sands of Algeria to the steaming jungles of Indonesia and Vietnam proved that others would make the same sacrifices to throw off the yoke of Imperialism today that the Irish did more than half a century ago.

And we have a longer way to go in helping the people of some other nations to free themselves from economic domination. This is a part of our national policy not only because it is humane but also because it is essential. Our future may depend on how well this is understood throughout the world— how well it is understood that we still champion the quality of freedom everywhere that Americans enjoy at home.

I like to think— as did President Kennedy— that the emerald thread runs in the cloth we weave today, that these policies in which he believed so strongly, and which President Johnson is advancing, are the current flowering of the Irish tradition. They are directed toward freedom for all Americans here and for all peoples throughout the world. And I like to think that these policies will survive and continue as the cause of Irish freedom survived the death of the Liberator, Owen Roe O’Neill.

As you’ll recall, O’Neill was one of the great figures of Irish history. It was of the period after his death, when the entire Irish nation was overwhelmed with grief, that the following lines were written:

Sagest in the council was he,

Kindest in the Hall;

Sure we never won a battle

’Twas Owen won them all.

Soft as woman’s was your voice, O’Neill:

Bright was your eye,

Oh! why did you leave us, Owen?

Why did you die?

Your troubles are all over,

You’re at rest with God on high,

But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Owen!

Why did you die?

We’re sheep without a shepherd,

When the snow shuts out the sky—

Oh! why did you leave us, Owen?

Why did you die?

So on this St. Patrick’s evening, let me urge you one final time to recall the heritage of the Irish. Let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today— at home and abroad— as Ireland struggled for a thousand years.

Let us not leave them to be “sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky.” Let us show them that we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope of the Irish.”


Kennedy never would forget Scranton. On the plane back to Washington, astonished by the reception he had received— the poignant outpouring of love for President Kennedy and much evidence that he stood well with the people in his own right— he made an irrevocable decision about his future. Somehow, he would remain in public service.

You can listen to the speech here: https://www.rfkspeeches.com/media/

A Sense of Wonderment: RFK, Kids and Wonderama

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In contrast to WC Fields’ famous quip, I think an adult’s character is fully demonstrated by how he or she treats children and pets. Stories mourning the passing last week of legendary NY television host Sonny Fox, best known for his Wonderama show for elementary school kids in the mid-1960s, brought this home to me again. The clip below reflects very well on Mr. Fox, and is especially revelatory of his guest, Robert Kennedy.

That RFK gravitated to children is not surprising. He was one of nine in his family, and fathered eleven of his own, which most of us believe alone is sufficient to award sainthood to his wife Ethel. Every biographer of Kennedy’s, and most of the journalists who covered him during his fifteen or so years in the public eye, noted that children (even those who did not know him) were drawn to Kennedy, and he to them.RFK sought kids out on foreign trips and domestic stops, sharing in their delight at every form of play, listening intently to their stories, worries and hopes, and often quietly returning their hugs, or holding their hands or stroking their cheeks.

That connection clearly grew stronger and more visceral as Kennedy sought out those in trauma, and suffered more devastating losses of his own. His impatience with adults, particularly those whom he felt misused their power or under-appreciated their bounties, remained close to the surface. But kids, devoid of artifice, saw him as one of their own — willing to play for no reason, or just be still. Most of all, as someone who would treat them as individuals worthy of respect, capable of caring about the most serious of subjects, and deserving real answers.

You’ll see all of that on Wonderama, a show he visited around each holiday season from 1964 through Kennedy’s last Christmas in 1967 (this episode was from the second visit). As Sonny Fox noted years later, “most people talk at kids; some talk to them — [RFK] talked with them and really listened.” And as you watch, remember that this man was widely branded Ruthless Robert, and had relentlessly interrogated Mafia murderers and crooked union bosses across a Senate Committee table. With children, there is instead a pervasive gentleness, and his lifelong shyness.

You can’t fake it with kids. They don’t care if you have a lot of money, and at eight or nine years old, they aren’t likely even to know if you are famous. At best, if you are both lucky and immensely deserving, they will see that you are one of them, curious and hopeful, yet aware that the world has its terrors. And that, not bluster and big crowds, survives even a half century and fuzzy black and white footage, to remind us of what makes a real man.


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“To Tame the Savageness of Man”

Indianapolis, Indiana – April 4, 1968

From RFK: His Words for Our Times:

[Video of the speech is at https://www.rfkspeeches.com/media/]

Kennedy launched his Indiana primary campaign on April 4, with a series of campus rallies. At Notre Dame, he had decried poverty, hunger, and joblessness. At Ball State University, he spoke of his belief in a generous America, and in the question-and-answer period that followed, a young black man asked, “You are placing great faith in white America. Is this faith justified?” Kennedy answered affirmatively and added, “I think the vast majority of white people want to do the decent thing.” Immediately before boarding the plane in Muncie to fly to Indianapolis, Kennedy received a call from Pierre Salinger (his brother’s press aide and a 1968 campaign adviser), who told him that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis.

Kennedy and his press secretary Frank Mankiewicz huddled on the short flight; they feared from the initial reports that King would not survive. Kennedy, still deeply scarred from his brother’s assassination, struggled to comprehend this latest shooting and to determine what he should say about it publicly.

When his car entered the black neighborhood, the police escort dropped off. The press bus became separated from the candidate, and on the bus Frank Mankiewicz frantically tried to draft a coherent statement from the images and concerns Kennedy had expressed on the plane.

On landing in Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that King was dead. His advance men, Walter Sheridan and (now Congressman) John Lewis, had scheduled a rally in the heart of the city’s ghetto, an event that Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar thought was too dangerous, even in the quieter times when the schedule was made.

The evening was chilly and raw. Lewis and Kennedy’s traveling aides learned that the ghetto was quiet—word of the assassination had not reached the neighborhood—but Indianapolis Chief of Police Winston Churchill advised Kennedy not to go because he expected there would be violence as soon as the news became known. Kennedy grimly decided to proceed as planned, and, having sent his pregnant wife ahead to the hotel, he rode to the site in silent contemplation.

About one thousand people were waiting, in a carefree mood typical of a rally. Walinsky, also having been separated from Kennedy when the motorcade was disbanded, rushed up with suggested talking points. Kennedy thanked him distantly, crumpled the notes, and jammed them into his overcoat without glancing at them.

Having specifically requested that he not be formally introduced, Kennedy climbed onto a flatbed truck that was serving as a platform. “He was up there,” said television correspondent Charles Quinn, “hunched in his black overcoat, his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish.” The only illumination came from floodlights, bathing the truck platform. As Mankiewicz raced up, with his own legal-pad speech draft, he realized he’d never reach the candidate in time.

Speaking extemporaneously, Kennedy said, in a sad, tremulous voice:

Ladies and gentlemen. I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you, [Could you lower those signs please?] I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis Tennessee.

A huge gasp came from the people and then screams of “No! No!” Kennedy somberly went on.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings; he died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s 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 evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also 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 get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem – my favorite poet – was Aeschylus.  And he once wrote: “Even 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 and lawlessness; but is 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 whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding—and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it is not the end of disorder.

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 that abide in our land.

… And dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

Kennedy was a unique white public official in America able to address a crowd in a black neighborhood that tragic night and not encounter violence. He spoke as a recognized champion of the disadvantaged, and he carried the credibility of his family’s tragedy; in fact, this night marked the first time he had referred publicly to his brother’s shooting.

Whether Kennedy’s appearance was a factor—and it seemed surely to have been—Indianapolis remained quiet while rioting broke out in 110 cities across the land, causing thirty-nine deaths, twenty-six hundred injuries, and tens of millions of dollars of property damage.

Returning to his hotel, Kennedy phoned Coretta King, and then (at her request) asked Mankiewicz to make arrangements for the body of the slain civil rights leader to be flown from Memphis to King’s home in Atlanta. Carrier after carrier refused, anxious about the resulting notoriety, as the night of black rage continued to sweep across the nation. Finally, in the early morning hours, a private plane was borrowed from a Kennedy friend in Atlanta.

(Photo by Leroy Patton, AP (c) )

Read more: RFK: His Words for Our Times is available at bookstores and online, including here: https://amazon.com/RFK-His-Words-Our-Times/dp/006283410X/

NOTE: The text of the speech has been edited since the publication of our book – I’ve provided here a direct transcript from the video of that evening. I regret that the book’s version does not exactly track the audio, but this does.

Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez – the beginning

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Today, March 31st, is a national holiday declared by President Obama in 2014 as Cesar Chavez Day. The founder of the United Farm Workers was a close ally of Robert Kennedy’s, a friendship born in 1966. This excerpt from our book describes that first encounter:

Late in 1965, friends in organized labor asked Robert Kennedy to take the subcommittee to the San Joaquin Valley of California, where Cesar Chavez, trained by legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, was unionizing grape pickers and urging a national boycott of nonunion grapes. Kennedy initially tried to avoid taking on another issue; he was resistant, preoccupied by Vietnam and the problems of the cities. But after more prodding from labor, he reluctantly joined his subcommittee for the second day of hearings in a high school auditorium in Delano, California, in March 1966.

What he saw and heard galvanized him. Chavez remembered the day as stiflingly hot and the auditorium as jam-packed. “There were workers inside and outside and crawling out the windows and in the doors.” Seats had to be cleared for the growers, who were, in Chavez’s understatement, “very hostile.” Kennedy listened to testimony from farm workers and from growers (who argued that the organizers were Communists or their dupes). Chavez later paraphrased Kennedy’s counsel to the growers: “It’s not in my mind that you’re going to win. I would suggest, of course, in terms of this committee, that you sit down and negotiate before the thing gets worse, because the workers are going to win.” Kennedy’s endorsement of their struggle was politically and psychologically important to Chavez’s movement. Union leader Dolores Huerta remembered that “Robert didn’t come to us and tell us what was good for us. He came and asked two questions . . . ‘What do you want?’ and ‘How can I help?’ That’s why we loved him.” He stayed in contact with the movement over the next two years, raising donations for them; working for minimum wage and collective bargaining legislation that would include itinerant workers such as grape pickers; and fighting to have the Immigration and Naturalization Service stop using threats of deportation to break the union. Kennedy had great personal respect for Chavez, a few years his junior, particularly because of Chavez’s shrewd organizing talents and his commitment to nonviolence in the struggle for increased economic and political power for migrant workers.

FOR MORE, PLEASE READ RFK: HIS WORDS FOR OUR TIMES, available at bookstores and https://www.amazon.com/RFK-His-Words-Our-Times/dp/006283410X/

Remarks on Gun Control – Roseburg, Oregon May 27, 1968

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(Excerpted from RFK: His Words for Our Times)

Robert Kennedy’s approach, successful in head-to-head 1968 Presidential primary contests with McCarthy in Indiana and Nebraska, had no traction in Oregon. Kennedy’s message never connected with voters in a state the candidate privately described as one giant suburb; as Kennedy told one reporter, “Let’s face it; I appeal best to people who have problems.” McCarthy had pulled out of Nebraska early and committed his best organizers to Oregon and California, and their efforts were matched by phone banks and similar support from friends of the administration within the AFL-CIO official structure, aiming to embarrass the candidate they felt would be Vice President Humphrey’s only viable challenger.

Gun control became a flash-point issue in Oregon. Co-sponsor of legislation regulating firearms, with his brother’s death by a mail-order gun a constant reminder, Kennedy did not duck the topic. The day before the primary, he visited Roseburg, Oregon, in the state’s southwest corner, where timbering drove the economy and recreational hunting was widespread. Warned by the local sheriff that he’d face hostility, Kennedy’s face was “grim” (according to the traveling New York Times reporter) as he approached the microphone on the steps of the Douglas County courthouse in front of a crowd estimated at fifteen hundred—roughly a tenth of the town’s population. Before him were signs reading “protect your right to keep and bear arms”.

“I see signs about the guns,” Senator Kennedy began. “I’m wondering if any of you would like to come and explain.”

According to the New York Times report,
[A] heavyset man in a lumber-jacket stepped forward and said:

“I’m Bud Stone [the Times reporter got it wrong: his name actually was SJ “Bud” Schoon]. The signs refer to the Senate bill [recently passed] and we think it’s a backdoor bill for the registration of guns and it would let the Supreme Court make the final decision.”

When the candidate got the microphone back, he said he understood that gun legislation was a big issue in this lumber town and that there had been broadcasts on the local radio station opposing the Senate bill.

“If we are going to talk about this legislation, let’s talk about it honestly and not say that it does something that it does not do.”

All [the legislation] requires is that when somebody purchases a gun through a mail order or you send a gun or a rifle across a state line that you abide by the law of a particular state . . . At the present moment, a person who is insane, a man with a long criminal record of having killed a dozen people, can go in and buy a rifle. Now if you think that that makes sense for all of us . . . A person who is four years old can buy a rifle now . . . A man on death row in Kansas, who had killed a half a dozen people, and someone there sent for a rifle, through the mail from Chicago, for him to have a rifle while he was waiting on death row, after killing people . . . and the rifle was sent to him.

Now, does that make any sense, that you should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns? I’d just ask you.

I just present the case—it’s presented to you, and I know that it’s presented on the radio here, and—[gesturing] I’m not making any reflections on this gentleman—is presented by the John Birch Society as somebody who is going to come in, the federal government is going to come in and take your guns away and take your rifles away. Nothing is going to happen about that. Anybody can have—just as you can have an automobile. I hear that . . . here in this community, it’s described as the way Nazi Germany started. Well you can say that registering an automobile is the way Nazi Germany started.

All we are talking about is having guns not in the hands—anybody can have a gun, anybody can have a rifle—but a person who’s got a criminal record or is in an insane institution or is mentally incompetent shouldn’t have a rifle or a gun. Is there anybody out here that thinks those people should have rifles or guns?

[Smattering of applause and Nos]

That’s all the legislation does. It doesn’t stop anybody from having a rifle or a gun, so [your sign] protect your right to keep and bear arms is just misleading the American people and is misleading everybody else.

Nobody is going to come in and take your guns away.

. . . With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep rearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles.

[A man in a cowboy hat booed loudly and shouted, “They’ll get them (guns) anyway,” the New York Times reported.]

The next day, Eugene McCarthy won the primary by six points, the first time a member of the Kennedy family had suffered a defeat in twenty-seven electoral contests.

The day after the primary, at a press conference in California, Kennedy read a prepared statement that said “these results represent a setback to my prospects for receiving the presidential nomination of my party, a setback, as I have previously stated, which I could ill afford.” Characteristically, in response to a question, he took complete responsibility: “I lost because I didn’t do well enough. The only fault is me.” Kennedy made a point of sending an early and gracious congratulatory telegram to McCarthy, who had not extended a similar courtesy after Kennedy’s victories in Indiana and Nebraska.

This wasn’t to be the last time Roseburg and gun violence made national news. On October 1, 2015, a twenty-six-year-old student at Umpqua Community College fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students, and wounded eight others. The killer was wounded in a shoot-out with police and then killed himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon’s modern history.


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Adapted from RFK: His Words for Our Times

Happy Earth Day! Observers have argued that Robert Kennedy was on his way to becoming our first environmental President by 1968.  He had been advocating for landmark clean air and clean water legislation, sought to focus public attention to the issues, and put the debate in moral terms.

On January 4, 1967, before the issue captured the widespread attention of either the public or politicians, Kennedy addressed one of the first major conferences to examine the consequences of fouling the environment: the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan Area Air Pollution Control Conference.  There, he said:

“On a trip to Latin America last year, I saw people in Recife, in the poorest part of Brazil, who ate crabs which lived on the garbage that the people themselves threw in the shallow water near their shabby homes. And whenever I tell this story to Americans, the reaction is: How sad, how terrible, that such poverty, such underdevelopment, should exist in the world.

But we New Yorkers are in a poor position from which to extend pity. For every year, the average New Yorker—old and young, rich and poor, athlete or infirm recluse—breathes in 750 pounds of his own wastes . . . And because there are so many of us, crowding into this tiny fraction of the United States, a great pall of filthy air blankets the entire metropolitan area, and we all must breathe the same air into which we carelessly spill our refuse . . .

But we should not—we cannot—wait for technology to make clean air entirely painless, to be achieved without effort, like a genie waving a magic wand. We will never get anywhere unless we begin now to apply what we do know . . .

Stewardship of the earth was related to Kennedy’s lifelong view of generational responsibility – on April 25, 1963, he had noted that “every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after.  In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.”

By the 1968 Presidential campaign Robert Kennedy was weaving these ideas into a broader moral call to overcome “the poverty of satisfaction“, beautifully enunciated on his first full day of campaigning, before an audience at the University of Kansas (March 28, 1968).  It became a signature expression of his vision for a new America:

“[E]ven if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—a lack of purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over eight hundred billion dollars a year, but that GNP—if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

(Photograph of Robert and Kerry Kennedy courtesy of George Henry (c)

In the Mississippi Delta – Rural Poverty in the World’s Richest Nation

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On April 10, 1967, Robert Kennedy attended Labor Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty hearings in Mississippi, following up on Capitol Hill hearings held that March.  In Washington, Kennedy was galvanized by testimony from Marian Wright, a twenty-seven-year-old southern native and Yale Law School graduate, who staffed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Mississippi office. She was one of only five black lawyers (and one of two black law school graduates) in the state, and the only one with a full-time specialty in civil rights. Edelman set the context for the Mississippi hearings: “After two civil rights bills and the third year of the poverty bill, the . . . Negro in Mississippi is poorer than he was, he has less housing, he is badly educated; he is almost in despair.”

On April 11, Kennedy told Charles Evers (brother of the slain Medgar and a key contributor to Kennedy’s black support in the 1964 Senate campaign), “I want to see it.” Led by local civil rights leader Amzie Moore, the small group began in Cleveland, Mississippi, and ventured deep into the Delta, into (in Evers’s words) “one of the worst places [I have] ever seen.” They went from shack to shack, listening to men long out of work, without skills or prospects, and parents trying to keep their babies alive on rice, biscuits, and gravy left over from old surplus handouts. Kennedy told traveling companion and key Senate aide Peter Edelman that although he had witnessed serious deprivation in West Virginia, he was viewing the most horrendous conditions he had seen in the United States, equal to the worst squalor he had seen in the Third World.

Evers remembered one shack with

no ceiling hardly The floor had holes in it, and a bed black as my arm, propped up with some kind of bricks to keep it from falling The odor was so bad you could hardly keep the nausea down
This lady came out with hardly any clothes on, and we told her who [Kennedy] was She just put her arms out and said “Thank God” and then she just held his hand.

Des Moines Register writer Nick Kotz, accompanying the group, watched Kennedy, who had seen “a child sitting on the floor of a tiny back room. Barely two years old, wearing only a filthy undershirt, she sat rubbing several grains of rice round and round on the floor. The senator knelt beside her.

“Hello… Hi… Hi, baby… ” he murmured, touching her cheeks and her hair as he would his own child’s As he sat on the dirty floor, he placed his hand gently on the child’s swollen stomach
But the little girl sat as if in a trance…. For five minutes he tried: talking, caressing, tickling, poking—demanding that the child respond. The baby never looked up.

Evers remembered that “tears were running down [Kennedy’s] cheeks, and he just sat there and held the little child. Roaches and rats were all over the floor . . . ‘How can a country like this allow it?’ [Kennedy asked him]. ‘Maybe they just don’t know.’”

As Marian Wright Edelman has written in her essay in the opening of our book, “From this trip and throughout the fifteen months I knew him, until his assassination, I came to associate Robert Kennedy with nonverbal, empathetic communications that conveyed far more than words. He looked straight at you and he saw you—and he saw suffering children. And his capacity for genuine outrage and compassion was palpable. He kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children and his pushing, passion, and visibility helped set in motion a chain of events that led to major reforms.”

For much of the 51 years since Senator Kennedy experienced Delta poverty directly, America extended a safety net for the nation’s poor, but in recent years, the number of poor – especially poor children – has steadily grown. Indeed, the US has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world: 25%. Overall, roughly 43 million of our fellow citizens are living below the poverty line.  (Coverage of a recent UN report is here.)

And two recent trends suggest that the situation will worsen.  First, the Trump administration is encouraging states to add work and other requirements to their welfare programs, despite substantial evidence that such steps lead hunger and extreme poverty to rise.  Second, the enormous federal deficit increases projected to result from the 2017 tax cut are cited by Republicans in arguing to gut safety net programs.

The national rise in child poverty, and stories of effective efforts in a number of states to protect kids, are detailed in this article from Billy Shore, co-founder of Share Our Strength.

A year after his trip to Mississippi, on the Presidential campaign trail, Robert Kennedy repeatedly reminded his listeners in every part of the country of the plight of these forgotten Americans:

I have seen children in Mississippi—here in the United States, with a gross national product of eight hundred billion dollars—I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so that we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their lives are not destroyed. I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.

Our Gross National Product now is nearly $20 billion, but for years we have lost Kennedy’s outrage about so many people living in our midst who cannot feed or house themselves or their children. We can’t Make America Great if we abandon one-quarter of our children to poverty.

(Photo by James Lucas, JFK Library)