“Do they know about Martin Luther King?”
This soft aside, caught by microphone above the din of a roiling crowd in Indianapolis, is the beginning of Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy’s recorded address to the city’s African-American community on April 4, 1968.
Then Kennedy clearly turns to face that microphone and asks, “Could you lower those signs, please? I have some very sad news for all of you and that is Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” Shrieks and cries travel like a horrible wave making beachhead further and further up the shoreline.
Kennedy’s sincere and reflective extemporaneous speech on what America’s direction at that moment is a climactic moment in L.A. Theatre Works’ RFK: The Journey to Justice commissioned by the University for the 2009–2010 Presenting Series season. Susan Albert Loewenberg, producing director, focused on 1960−1968 to examine the complicated relationship of two American icons.
And, nearly 50 years since the assassinations of these two men, their shocking deaths barely two months apart, men whose humanity shone through in their ability to listen to growing cries of injustice, to search the darkest corners of their souls to hear those calls, and then to evolve. Robert Kennedy did so about King and the Civil Rights Movement. King as his focus expanded to include economic and moral injustice, as well as racial prejudice.
King’s speeches are so well known, baked into our bones. They are recited on this day by school children and adults to stir crowds at community celebrations. As we come to reckon with—again—when we will overcome, let’s remember Robert Kennedy’s words spoken on one fateful April day in a year that changed the world. You may also watch an excerpt here.
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.
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.¹
Join the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center in celebrating the human spirit, the power of a unified community and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through Presenting Series visiting artists and screenings in the Browning Cinema, we provide arts engagement to reveal and embrace the many ways we may connect with the arts to grow our capacity to live and flourish together. View this year’s Higher Ground events.