Editor’s Note: This is part of The Atlantic’s ongoing series looking back at 1968. All past articles and reader correspondence are collected here. New material will be added to that page through the end of 2018.
Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while celebrating victory in a primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was a senator from New York, and before that, U.S. attorney general in the presidential administration of his older brother John F. Kennedy. Every anniversary of his death brings new remembrances from his contemporaries.
But the words he spoke in his final months perhaps best capture what he meant to his supporters, and why some still feel the loss, all these decades later, when imagining what might have been had he lived to run against and defeat Richard Nixon.
There he is in March 1968 at the University of Kansas, complimenting William Allen White (“that notorious seditionist,” he quipped), for saying: “If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come out of our college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.”
He is “an honored man today, here on your campus and around the rest of the nation,” Kennedy said. “But when he lived and wrote, he was reviled as an extremist and worse. For he spoke as he believed. He did not conceal his concern in comforting words. He did not delude his readers or himself with false hopes and with illusions. This spirit of honest confrontation is what America needs today.”
Only by confronting the truth, he argued, and eschewing votes won by “hiding the American condition in false hopes or illusions,” could a presidential candidate “find out the promise of the future, what we can accomplish here in the United States, what this country does stand for and what is expected of us in the years ahead.”
And so Kennedy articulated “where we’ve gone wrong” to the crowd:
I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi, here in the United States, with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars—I have seen children in the Delta area with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed. I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.
I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide. That they end their lives by killing themselves—I don’t think that we have to accept that for the first Americans, for this minority here in the United States. If young boys and girls are so filled with despair when they are going to high school and feel that their lives are so hopeless, that nobody’s going to care for them … that they either hang themselves, shoot themselves, or kill themselves—I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America.
“I run for the presidency because of that,” he said. “I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one—neither industry, nor labor, nor government—has cared enough to help them.”
I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also. I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms—without heat—warding off the cold and warding off the rats. If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
In the same speech, Kennedy delivered as fine a passage as exists in favor of the proposition that it isn’t economic growth alone that voters ought to be concerned about:
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product, if we judge the United States of America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.
It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Then it is April 4, 1968—the day Martin Luther King is shot. Kennedy is scheduled to speak in an African American neighborhood in Indianapolis that night. He is warned that the authorities cannot guarantee his safety but decides to go on with remarks written just prior and delivered from the back of a flatbed truck.
He said in part:
In this difficult day … 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 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.
To this day, some credit the speech with sparing Indianapolis the riots that ravaged more than 100 cities that night. And off Kennedy went to Cleveland, Ohio.
He spoke at the Cleveland City Club the next day. And it is hard to feel his words as the crowd would’ve felt them, not only because they were reeling from the shock of the King assassination and the riots that followed, but because the way Kennedy laments the violence cannot help but make us think of the fate that would soon befall him.
This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives. It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one—no matter where he lives or what he does—can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.
And yet it goes on and on. Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.
About nonviolence he is insistent:
No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people. Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily, whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence, whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.
Then he was alluding not just to assassinations and riots but to the Vietnam War, too, as well as the radicals who turned to violence while protesting it in the United States:
“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.” Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire. Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others.
Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them. Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
With “only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness,” he turns to American institutions. “For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night,” he declares. “This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men.”
He proposes no specific program of remedies, “nor is there a single set.”
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence. We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land.
Two months later his too-short life would end.
Barack Obama once mused, “he was able to look us in the eye and tell us that no matter how persistent the poverty or the racism, no matter how far adrift America strayed, hope would come again … His was a politics that, at its heart, was deeply moral––based on the notion that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and it’s our job to organize our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference.”
But an assassin killed Kennedy, the Democratic nomination went to Hubert Humphrey, and he was beaten by Nixon, whose politics, at its heart, was deeply immoral.
Had RFK lived, what might have been?