January 18, 2011

RFK on MLK: Pain Which Cannot Forget.

RFK’s Speech on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Day inspired me to revisit Robert F. Kennedy’s gut-wrenching, moving, peace-making, and impromptu speech, which he made right after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

That day, Robert Kennedy, younger brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, was supposed to address a large gathering of black Americans in inner city Indianapolis as part of a campaign rally. (At the time he was running for Democratic nomination for the 1968 Presidential elections; his platform emphasized racial and economic justice.)

Bobby Kennedy was advised against addressing the crowd. People were legitimately worried that riots would ensue—they already were in other parts of the country. However, in the spirit of the great MLK, Kennedy moved forward with courage and peace.

RFK greeted a large, upbeat crowd, and quickly realized they had no idea of King’s murder. Kennedy would not only be addressing the crowd; he would also be the one to break the news. Perhaps experiencing the assassination of his own brother lent RFK the ability to face such a difficult moment, to speak from the heart and from the experience of having already endured the pain of violent loss.

After his remarkably genuine speech, the crowd left in peace.  While riots broke out in 60 cities across the country, Indianapolis was not one of them.

I have thought of this speech often during times of mourning.  I’ve found that Bobby Kennedy’s favorite quote lends quiet strength, particularly during moments that might otherwise feel like unbearable suffering.  The words now mark the tomb of RFK—whose life, of course, was also cut short by assassination:

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. ~Aeschylus

I love Martin Luther King Day for reminding me of these two great men, who died fighting for equality and civil rights.  Remembering them serves as powerful inspiration to live mindfully and for the benefit of all beings.

I hope you watch or read the speech.

A clip from RFK’s Speech (See fuller versions below):

Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…

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 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 these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. 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.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah 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. 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.

(Interrupted by applause)

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. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Robert F. Kennedy – April 4, 1968

Full(er) (heartbreaking) video—you can hear him ask something like “do they know” in the beginning, and the cry of horror and pain when he announces the murder of Dr. King.

Full video:


Juliana McCarthy is a former Texan, New Yorker, and Californian who recently moved to Boulder, Colorado, to study psychology and ride horses. She studied Writing and Contemporary Art at Sarah Lawrence College and has traveled the world working in fashion, art, literature, and entertainment. Once a  resident of Karmê Chöling, she remains a devoted student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche with a particular passion for Dharma Art. Follow her on Twitter | StumbleUpon.

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