Robert Kennedy’s Moving Eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

A prior post discussed the eloquent eulogy by Robert f. Kennedy for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night King was assassinated, April 4, 1968.

David Margolick, a former New York Times journalist who is writing a book about King and Kennedy, reminds us that before that night, the two men had a “testy” relationship[. King was horrified to learn of RFK’s appointment as Attorney General because of “his early ties to Senator Joseph McCarthy, [Kennedy’s] attacks on organized labor, his cozy relationship with Southern racist politicians and his reputation for being his big brother’s consigliere.” Their subsequent contacts were infrequent and private. Moreover, Kennedy felt more at home with black militants than many mainstream black leaders like Dr. King. Thus, Kennedy came to Indianapolis that night because of promises he had made to black Indianapolis and despite aides’ worries that Kennedy would be putting his life at risk.[1]

The Eulogy[2]

That night Kennedy arrived late and climbed into the back of a pickup truck as his platform and delivered the following six-minute eulogy:

“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.”

Conclusion

Margolick observes that although no one in the audience probably had never heard of Aeschylus, the poem’s words “pain,” “despair,” “awful,” “grace” and “God” resonated with them.[3]

Andrew Young, the black leader who that night was with other black leaders in the Memphis motel where King had been assassinated, later recalled, says Margolick, that Kennedy “was in the middle of a totally black community, and he stood there without fear and with great confidence and empathy, and he literally poured his soul out talking about his brother. The amazing thing to us was that the crowd listened. He reached them.” Young also said the feeling in that motel room that night was “He’s probably going to go next.”

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[1] Margolick, The Power of Bobby Kennedy’s Eulogy for Martin Luther King, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2018). An account of Kennedy’s actions regarding King in the days after the assassination is set forth in an excerpt of the new book by Margolick, The Promise and the Dream.

[2] Robert F. Kennedy, Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

[3] Perhaps unartful comments about this poem by Aeschylus were provided in Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com    (Feb. 10, 2014).