Friday, April 4, 2008
May Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them
Today marks the anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. It also marks the anniversary of another event -- a speech delivered by presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. in Indianapolis in eulogy for King. What was just another campaign stop, became a shining moment of grace.
News of King's assassination reached Kennedy moments before he was to address a crowd gathered in an inner city playground. Local police advised him to cancel the appearance. Riots were breaking out in cities all over the country. Local officials could not guarantee his safety against an angry crowd.
Kennedy stepped up to the microphone on an improvised stage near a basketball goal. The assembled crowd was loud and lively. Many, it seemed, did not yet know of King's death. Kennedy ignored the speech an aide had prepared for him. He pulled from the pocket of his overcoat a crumpled page of notes he had written himself moments before. In a story today marking the occasion, Indystar.com reporters say it best: "It was a cold, windy evening and Kennedy was no King. His voice lacked the rich timbre, the rolling thunder and power, the memorable metaphors of that most gifted of orators. But he was up there, . . . hunched in his black overcoat, his face gaunt and full of anguish."
Words from the speech are carved into the marker at Robert Kennedy's grave site in Arlington National cemetery: "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."
Kennedy announced King's murder and presented the crowd with two paths. One led to hatred, violence and bitterness. The other would unite us in King's commitment to understanding and compassion as the path to peace. He recited from memory lines from Aeschylus' Agamemnon: "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." He asked the crowd in Indianapolis and the nation to "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."
Six weeks later, Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. In the weeks that followed King's death, riots, looting and burning ravaged American cities. But Indianapolis, where Kennedy spoke, was calm.
You can see Kennedy's speech and read the text on American Rhetoric.com.