The date was April 4, 1968. It was, of course, a day with bittersweet meaning on this day when we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. On that date, King lost his life to an assassin.
That same day, Democrat presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning in Indianapolis. He had just heard the news. He gingerly took to a platform to tell his audience, “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.”
The audience gasped in shock (you can listen here).
What helpful words or thoughts could Kennedy uniquely offer at this moment to calm people and urge them to a King-like response of non-violence? Well, Kennedy could offer something wholly unique—his own personal experience with assassination:
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.
Everyone in that audience could relate to that. They knew that Bobby Kennedy himself could especially relate. Yes, he had likewise lost someone dear, his beloved brother, five years earlier, November 22, 1963, to the gun of a white man. These things were both acts of hate; all such acts usually are. In fact, many conservatives have long objected to a unique category of “hate” crimes given that most crimes, certainly those involving murder, are motivated by hate.
The Kennedy brothers, of course, had a rocky relationship with MLK, one that their liberal admirers would like us to not know. They included looking into King’s communist ties and even wiretapping the civil rights icon. As his brother’s attorney general, Bobby himself approved those wiretaps. But he certainly was looking beyond that at this moment.
As he was prone to do in instances like this, RFK, a morose character with the temperament more of a monk than a politician, went to Greek tragedy:
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….
[T]he 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.
Of course, what’s especially tragically ironic about this moment — Bobby Kennedy noting King’s assassination and his brother’s assassination — is that RFK himself was assassinated just two months later. In his case, the assassin was not some southern white redneck but a Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan, who was seeking retribution for RFK’s support of Israel a year earlier in the Six Day War.
That’s a very sad ending, of course. If I may, I’ll look back with a happier RFK moment for readers of The American Spectator, one uniquely experienced by the founder of this magazine, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., in Indiana that same month of April 1968.
It was April 24, 1968, and Kennedy spoke to a packed house of raucous students at Indiana University in Bloomington, nearing the end of the Indiana primary, which Kennedy would win before heading on to the crucial primary in California, where he was shot.
Leave it to Bob Tyrrell to somehow be the only person on stage with Kennedy in Bloomington that day. Albeit unseen. He stood watching behind RFK, with a drawn curtain separating the two of them. How he got there, who knows.
The 24-year-old Tyrrell was then the new editor of the local conservative magazine started right there in Bloomington, called The Alternative, which he would later rechristen, The American Spectator.
When the speech was over, with the crowd clapping enthusiastically, Kennedy headed off stage, where he turned and ran into none other than Bob Tyrrell.
“How do we get out of here, kid?” Kennedy asked Tyrrell. Tyrrell blithely yet confidently took command: “Follow me.”
It was the blind leading the blind, but Tyrrell confidently took up the task. He turned left, right, left, and, of course, ultimately stayed right — always Tyrrell’s natural inclination. The turn right worked here, too. Tyrrell led the Democrat out of the darkness.
Somehow, Tyrrell guided his fellow Irish Catholic right to his waiting vehicle. When an appreciative Kennedy hopped in and offered his hand to Tyrrell, the quick-witted founder of this venerable publication placed in the Democrat’s hand a “Reagan for President” button.
An inspired choice!
Ronald Reagan had smoked RFK a year earlier in a nationally televised debate. Kennedy snapped at his aide Frank Mankiewicz immediately after the debate, “Who the f–k got me into this?” He told Mankiewicz to never again put him on the same stage with “that son-of-a-bitch Reagan.”
But with usual good humor, RFK took the Reagan button from Tyrrell, smiled, laughed, and drove away.
That was a better time, three weeks after the shooting of MLK.
April 4, 1968 was a very bad time. We remember it every time we remember King on this day, a national holiday for him — approved by President Ronald Reagan in November 1983.
RFK’s words that day were poignant and worth remembering.