During his 1968 campaign to become the Democratic candidate for President, Robert F. Kennedy found himself in Indianapolis on April 4th. Journalist Joe Klein, in his book with the incredibly long, yet totally prescient, title of Politics Lost: From RFK to W: How Politicians Have Become Less Courageous and More Interested in Keeping Power than in Doing What's Right for America, states that the speech given by Kennedy that evening “marked the end of an era: the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.”
Klein also noted that Kennedy’s words “stand as a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose – to heal, to educate, to lead.” As he stood on the back of a flatbed truck that acted as a makeshift stage Kennedy began his speech with words that no one in the crowd expected, words that they hoped they would never hear.
“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.”
These words, spoken to a crowd of about a thousand African-Americans, brought forth screams of terror and anguish. They were words that Kennedy was warned not to deliver, and, in fact, he was told by the police chief of Indianapolis to cancel the speech because law enforcement could not promise that Kennedy and his people would be protected should there be violence.
Deciding to speak anyway, he jotted down notes in the car ride from the airport. In the end, those notes provided America with possibly the greatest speech ever delivered by a political candidate, and certainly, because of the circumstances, one of the bravest ever given in this country.
I have no desire to, beyond that opening sentence, quote this speech. It is easily found on the Internet and it is well worth the five minutes that it takes to watch it. But I do want to quote from a much longer speech – also worth your time and easily found on the Internet, delivered the day before, on April 3rd.
At the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ, the day before he died, Dr. King delivered his final speech. Dr. King had come to Memphis to stand in solidarity with striking Black sanitation workers, and he delivered a typically powerful oration calling for non-violent protests. He warned that if the protests became violent then that violence – rather than injustice – would become the headline.
The final words of his speech gave this historic address its name, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, and are among the most famous of his illustrious career.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
A prophet, we are told, is not someone who necessarily foretells the future, but one who forth-tells the message of the Lord. The prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reads the signs of the times and then proclaims to the people what they need to hear. This often contrasts with what they want to hear.
On April 3, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was prophetic in both senses. He spoke as one who saw the world rightly, and who was called to deliver God’s message. Yet he also spoke as one who foresaw his own death on the horizon. But there he stood, preaching non-violence only hours before violence would take his life.
Throughout the country there were violent riots in response to the murder of Dr. King. In every major city in America there was unrest – well, every major city except one: Indianapolis. In that city words from the heart, spoken by a man whose brother had been assassinated, resonated with people whose backgrounds could not have been more different than that of the senator from New York who in two months’ time would himself be the victim of an assassin’s bullet, and whose death would again bring devastating sadness to Black America.
On that windy night at the corner of 17th and Broadway the crowd did not see a person who was white. They did not see a person of privilege. They saw a person who, like them, had had his life changed forever by violence, and they saw in him a brother and a leader.
Only a few minutes before his speech on that flatbed truck, Robert F. Kennedy sat in the Indianapolis airport, head in hands, and responded to the news of Dr. King’s death with the words, “Oh God. When is this violence going to stop?”
Sadly, those who today look around for men like King and Kennedy and find none, are continuing to ask that same question.