RFK on MLK: ‘wisdom through the awful grace of God’

Campaigning for president in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced the death of Martin Luther King to a waiting crowd and spoke extemporaneously:

[Transcript, courtesy of AmericanRhetoric.com.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — 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.

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 fill with — 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 — 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, it’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, but we — 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’s 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 let’s 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.




11 thoughts on “RFK on MLK: ‘wisdom through the awful grace of God’”

  1. Please help the Democratic Party to return to the anti-war tradition so strongly championed in the speeches given by JFK, RFK and MLK. All my research indicates that Robert did not believe the “lone nut” theory of his brother’s assassination and wanted to reveal the truth when he, himself, would become President. What a tragedy the deaths of these great men was for the prospect of peace in our times. I remember so well the moment someone burst into my college room and told me JFK had been killed. I still mourn.

  2. President Kennedy elevated the civil rights struggle to a moral crisis in this nation. It was Robert Kennedy who steered his brother in this direction. RFK wrote the speech that President Kennedy used to address the nation on June 11, 1963 (American University speech was delivered the day before, on June 10, 1963). JFK opposed escalating the war in Vietnam and had a pending Civil Right bill before Congress. Martin Luther King (Nobel Peace Prize, 1964) progressed from Civil Rights leader, to change agent for the poor and for changing the economic structure of this country. MLK also opposed the Vietnam War on moral and economic grounds. RFK became the champion of the poor and voiceless in this society, viewing these as systemic injustices in the richest nation on earth. He also opposed the Vietnam War, on policy grounds, at the time of his death. Three leaders who opposed the Vietnam War and who sought to change the status quo. Three leaders assassinated (allegedly by lone assassins). The leaders (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr,, Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama) who advanced the aims, interests, and agenda of the Deep State, lived to profit from thier public services tenures. Nice reward(s) had JFK, MLK, and RFK, lived to receive them. What does it profit a country to gain the world, but lose its soul?

  3. One of the most touching speeches I have ever seen.
    A watershed moment in the political life of RFK and possibly the world if he’d been given the opportunity to carry on. He showed a glimpse of great potential to possibly outdo his brother. His brother avoided world war catastrophe more than once in his short reign (despite being surrounded by mindless warmongering generals, politicians, and intelligence agencies); and could well have steered America toward a more peaceful, less paranoid, less damaging, and less warlike future.

  4. This was RFK’s finest moment. It’s astonishing to realize that anyone could come up with a speech like this with almost no warning, particularly under the circumstances. He could very well have gone on to be a greater president than his brother.

  5. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

    Much more discussion is needed about the overlapping of economic foci between MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign and RFK’s 1968 Campaign which was a class turning point in the history of the Democratic Party.

    Of course any discussion of this overlap is strongly discouraged by our ruling class. Hence their use of left gatekeepers as proximal anaesthetic

  6. The heartfelt message of RFK that night is overwhelming. Listening to the crowd respond in pain but then respond to RFK’s talk is breathtaking.

    We have no leaders today to match JFK, MLK or RFK. Which may explain why each one had to be killed.

    1. Did they “have to be killed” because they were strong advocates for positive, good things for this country? Our involvement in Vietnam was terrible for this country. Who wanted Vietnam to happen, and why? What’s wrong with a positive, strong country?

  7. What a leader he’d have been! I obviously don’t base this purely on that speech!! It’s so tragic that his own assassination by the very scumbag traitors that killed his brother is completely overlooked and forgotten. #Manchurian candidate

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