Sunday, April 8, 2018

His Finest Moment

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.

It was a cold early April evening as hundreds of people gathered to hear a political stump speech to be held in an open space at 17th and Broadway, in the heart of the African American community of Indianapolis. The site for the speech was approved by John Lewis who had been working on the candidate's campaign. Many of the folks in the crowd had been waiting for hours, just to get close to the speaker's platform. Unfortunately for them, as these things usually go, the scheduled day's worth of events backed up, and the candidate was running late.

I suspect many in the crowd figured they were about to witness history of some sort, but little did they know how much they themselves would be a part of that history. If you've been paying attention to the news this past week, you probably know where I'm going with this.

As he was about to board a plane in Muncie, Indiana that would take him to his next scheduled stop, the candidate, Robert Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King had been shot. Not many details were provided but Kennedy feared the worst, which was confirmed when his plane landed in Indianapolis. Meanwhile the crowd where the speech was scheduled had swollen to a couple thousand, and many of those who arrived later and stood around the periphery, already knew about Dr. King.

There were some waiting for the candidate who were not intimidated to be among a handful of white folks within a crowd that was predominantly black, in a predominantly black neighborhood where not even the white mayor and some members of the police would dare set foot. The white folks there later reported that the welcoming climate of the crowd when they first arrived at the site of the speech, changed precipitously after the news of Dr. King's death began to circulate. One woman was heard to say: "Dr. King is dead and a white man did it, why does he (Kennedy) have to come here?" It was less than an hour after Dr. King's death, and some people in the crowd already began to call for vengeance.

The mayor and the chief of police told Kennedy that they could not guarantee his safety. Most of the people in  Kennedy's entourage, including his wife Ethel, strongly objected to him going ahead with the speech. John Lewis disagreed; he believed Kennedy would have a calming influence on the crowd.

None of that mattered, there was no question in Robert Kennedy's mind that he would go ahead with the appearance, without the presence of the police no less. Rejecting a hastily written speech put together by his staff, Kennedy spent his time riding from the airport to 17th and Broadway figuring out what to say.

He arrived at the site greeted by taunts, jeers and catcalls asking him what the hell he was doing there. Some of the black folks present feared for his life. Undaunted, Kennedy, clutching his notes and wearing one of his late brother's overcoats, climbed up to the speaker's platform, the back of a flat bed truck. In recordings of the event you can hear him asking the event organizers if the crowd already knew about Dr. King. "No, we're saving that for you" was the response.

Kennedy began his remarks by asking his supporters to put down their signs with his name on them, because he had very sad news to tell them. It's clear from the collective screams and gasps that many in the crowd still had not heard the dreadful news until Robert Kennedy broke it to them.

Without once referring to his notes, Kennedy spoke extemporaneously for about six minutes.

After some laudatory words eulogizing Dr. King, Kennedy cut to the chase:
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.
One could dismiss these words as an attempt by a powerful, rich white guy telling poor black people to keep calm and carry on, and above all to remember their place and not make too much mischief.

But then Robert Kennedy reminded the crowd that he actually had some skin in the game:
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.
It would mark the only time Robert Kennedy would ever publicly speak of the death of his brother the president.

Now it must be mentioned that there were few white people in America at that time who could have pulled off any kind of speech to black people at that moment. President Kennedy, although not a passionate supporter of civil rights during his life, did confront racist governors who prevented black students form attending state universities, a fact that African Americans never forgot. It was not uncommon to find JFK's portrait hanging in black households after his assassination in 1963. Bobby Kennedy who himself didn't have a stellar civil rights record until late in his life, and was not at all close with Dr. King, was able to ride on his late brother's coattails before he convinced the African American community of his own sincerity on the issues of human rights, equality, and the eradication of poverty in this nation.

Unlike his brother the president, Bobby Kennedy was a man of relatively small frame and stature. Also unlike JFK and certainly Dr. King, while a good public speaker, he was not a powerful orator. Standing on the back of that truck, dwarfed inside his borther's oversized coat, clearly shaken by the news and speaking from the heart in an unsteady voice, he humbled himself in front of a shocked and potentially hostile audience.

And he won them over.

Kennedy next quoted Aeschylus, whose words from the play Agamemon (found at the top of this post), served him well during his period of profound grief over his brother's death.

Today in our  "enlightened" era, one whose academia downplays the significance of "dead white males", quoting a white guy who'd been dead for 25 centuries at a tribute to a recently martyred hero of color, murdered by a white man no less, would certanly raise a few eyebrows.

One commentator, going the other direction, backhandedly justified the use of the quote, suggesting that while most of those present likely had no clue who Aeschylus was, they certainly could pick out words in the quote that would speak to them like "pain", "despair", "wisdom" and "grace".

The comment I found on Kennedy's use of the quote that sums up my own feelings about it was written by Joe Sommerlad in the Independent:
The reference was inspired. In the wrong hands, citing antiquity might have appeared pretentious or vainglorious but Kennedy respected his audience's intelligence and handed down the gift of a noble thought that had brought him much comfort in his own time of trial.
After the quote Kennedy went on:
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.
They say one of the most important ingredients of making a successful speech is knowing your audience. We'll never know how much Bobby Kennedy truly understood his audience that night save for one thing, the common bonds that connect all human beings. He knew suffering as they did. He understood compassion and love, and he counted on his audience to understand those things as well.  It was the core vaules all of us of good will share, that enabled Kennedy to touch the hearts and souls of the people gathered together in Indianapolis that terrible night. He went on:
... 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.
In his comments that night, Kennedy laid it out pure and simple, we human beings have more things in common, than things that would separate us. He kept asking rhetorically, what kind of nation do we want to live in, and the people of that community responded.

Much has been written about Indianapolis being one of the few major American cities that did not experience violence after the death of Martin Luther King. One might be skeptical that Bobby Kennedy's speech alone had anything to do with that, but the fact is this: prresent at  his speech that night were members of a street gang known as the Ten Percenters, cans filled with gasoline in hand, openly recruiting members of the audience to join them in violence. Years later, one man from the group would say: “After he spoke we couldn’t get nowhere,”

Indianapolis may have been one of the few, but it wasn't the only city in the country with a significant African American population that did not erupt in violence, The Black Panther organization in Oakland helped prevent the burning of that city. And while the west side of Chicago was decimated by riots, the south side neighborhood of Woodlawn was spared the same fate, largely due to the intervention of the Blackstone Rangers, a group who had ties to Martin Luther King, It was the intervention of groups such as the Watoto Wa Simba, College Room, the Black Radical Action Project, the Black Panthers and yes the Ten Percenters, all of whom were represented at Kennedy's speech, that made sure cooler heads prevailed and kept Indianapolis from burning. Virtually everyone from those groups attributes their actions to the speech.

Robert Kennedy's speech made the late night news that evening, among dozens of other stories about King's assassination. It came too late to make the deadline for the morning papers and it may very well have been forgotten had fate not stepped in. My first memories of hearing the speech are from seeing it two months later, re-broadcast after Kennedy's own assassination. Even as a nine year old child, I couldn't help being moved by the poignance of a man who called for love, compassion, and an end to violence, to swept up in that same violence such a short time later. It's ironic that were it not for his own tragic death, Robert Kennedy's finest moment may have been as one writer described it, merely a footnote in history. As it stands today that speech is considered one of this country's most important.

Michael Rosenwald's Washington Post's article last week on the speech mentions a 2006 book called Politics Lost by Joe Klein. Klein begins his book with the story of that speech:
Kennedy’s words stand as a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose — to heal, to educate, to lead.
They say that talk is cheap, but not that night. Kennedy's words and actions on the night of Martin Luther King's assasination, and the results from it, proved that we're a much better and stronger nation when we set aside our fears, our prejudices, our hatred and division, heal old wounds, and work together toward the greater good. He stood before an angry crowd, not as their guardian angel sent from above to lead them down the path righteousness, but simply as himself, speaking form the heart as a fellow human being. 

Fifty years late Kennedy's words and actions that night still heal, educate, and if we choose to take them to heart, might help lead us to a better world.

If only.

No comments: