Forty years ago today, on the Democratic presidential campaign trail in Indiana, one of the most remarkable moments in American political history occurred.
New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was locked in a race for the Democratic nomination with another liberal insurgent, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, and the party establishment’s emerging choice: Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Kennedy had not yet won any primaries. His candidacy remained untested, as did his faith that it was possible to cross lines of racial division and unite a nation that was struggling to overcome the awful legacies of racial segregation, discrimination and fear.
Kennedy arrived on April 4, 1968 to make his stand in Indiana, a racially-divided state where Alabama segregationist George Wallace had run well in a Democratic presidential primary four years earlier.
That night, before he appeared in Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Nobel Peace Prize-winning champion of the nation’s civil rights movement, had been assassinated in Memphis.
Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a large outdoor rally. The Indianapolis police said they could not assure his safety. His own staff counseled that the event should be canceled.
But Kennedy chose to appear.
Here is what the white senator said to his overwhelmingly African-American audience:
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.