RFK after the DC riots, April 7, 1968

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50 YEARS AGO TODAY: Having helped to quiet Indianapolis after the death of Dr. King on April 4, and made an extended plea for an end to violence April 5 in Cleveland, Robert Kennedy returned to one of the cities worst hit by riots: Washington DC. With city officials and members of the community, he walked a 22-block area that had been ground zero. Here’s how we described the scene in our book:

“Soldiers in full battle gear, deployed on tanks and armored personnel carriers, attempted to keep the cur- few. 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.’”

Caption on the featured image, from the Washington Post: “An April 7, 1968, photo showing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., stepping through the debris of a building razed by fire during a 22-block tour on foot, April 7, 1968, through the badly damaged area along 14th Street is placed on a easel at the present day corner of 7th and U Streets in northwest Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).”

“On the Mindless Menace of Violence” – RFK April 5, 1968, Cleveland City Club

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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

A Man and a Moment – Robert Kennedy on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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From RFK: His Words for Our Times:

On the Death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Indianapolis, Indiana April 4, 1968

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.

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.

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.

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:

I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight.

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 for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. 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.

So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, 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; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; 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 who abide in our land.

Let us 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.

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) )

Martin Luther King Jr. – Memphis Civil Rights Museum and history as catalyst to action

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The article linked below is a wonderful, powerful reflection on Dr. King, so perfect for this season and next week's 50th anniversary of a national tragedy. Easter is centered on the proposition that amidst deepest heartbreak can come hope. Here's how that plays out in this article as we face these anniversaries: "To idealists of the 21st century, it may seem that on many social, economic and ethical fronts the country has come to what seems a futureless halt, just as the museum’s civil rights story does. But rather than exit the scene in weariness or frustration, we would do well to go back in time. If we stay alert, we can find instruction there." https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/arts/design/martin-luther-king-jr-national-civil-rights-museum.html

Robert Kennedy and the birth of the state of Israel

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March 29:  RFK: His Words for Our Times begins with selections from the newspaper articles for the Boston Post written by Robert Kennedy as a 22-year old correspondent for the Boston Post in Palestine, as the British mandate was ending and fighting between Arabs and Jews escalated. This picture was taken nearly exactly 70 years ago – in late March of 1948, just before the state of Israel was declared. RFK is on King David Street; behind him is a British military checkpoint at the intersection of what is now Agron Street. Kennedy’s pieces were remarkably perceptive and have uncanny echoes today. You’ll be able to read them, oh so easily, when the book comes out May 1. All the ways to pre-order are here: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062834102/rfk

Robert Kennedy + Cesar Chavez

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March 30 was #CesarChavezDay. Chavez and Kennedy took chances on one another. RFK embraced the Farm Workers when they were still largely considered to be radicals & where political advisers told Kennedy that support of the UFW would cost him votes in the crucial CA primary. Chavez reached out to Kennedy when distrust of white elected officials was intense, and it was clear that an alliance with RFK would enrage the Johnson administration. Yet, as this article reviews, theirs was a friendship based on a common sense of activist Catholicism. Sacrifice, justice, loss and redemption – all fitting themes on this Good Friday and the beginning of Passover. Best wishes to all at a holy time perfect for reflection and then action.  https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/12/50-years-ago-catholic-example-cesar-chavez-and-bobby-kennedy

Living for the Next Generation

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“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.” – April 25, 1963