It was called the greatest speech ever written — April 4, 1968.
A predominantly black crowd gathered in the streets of Indianapolis. They had had not yet heard the devastating news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was Robert F. Kennedy who brought them the pain-filled news in a brief announcement. And then he shared the unending pain he felt, but seldom mentioned publicly, of his brother’s death in Dallas. He pleaded with the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”
They did go home, and Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn that night.
When we contemplate today’s headlines, some of us can hear Robert Kennedy’s voice and imagine him speaking out in our country — on the madness of gun violence, on the shame of police brutality, on the need for compassion in welcoming immigrants and refugees, on the moral necessity to seek peace instead of war, and on the divisiveness of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and all other challenges to our quest for unity. His way of communicating with others — personally or in crowds of people — was calming and inspiring.
When he spoke, he often called for peace and unity:
Surely we can learn, at least, to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
— Robert F. Kennedy
Clearly, Robert F. Kennedy was loved by the everyday people of this nation — the factory and farm workers, the coal miners and the steel workers, the teachers and the doctors, the people who lived in the most modest neighborhoods as well as the people in the mansions on the hilltops. Why such an appeal? It could well be because his life and leadership were forged in the civil rights battles he faced as attorney general and in his own harrowing introspection after his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
Less than five years after losing his brother, “as he lay shot and bleeding on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he looked up and asked: “Is everybody OK?”
— Robert Morris Shrum, Director and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, UNiversity of Southern California
The books and films on Robert F. Kennedy’s life are so compelling that even persons who were not yet born then can grasp why millions flocked to rail sides as his funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington, DC. In the midst of a nation’s despondency at losing the third great American leader, the train carrying his body was a kind of defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been. His daughter described that day.
A train carried his body from New York City to the nation’s capital. Crowds lined the train tracks, and waved, and cried. That train ride was supposed to be three hours, and instead it turned out to be almost seven hours. Two million people came out. African Americans in Baltimore singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nobody organized this; it was spontaneous.
— Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
As always, we have the opportunity to grow and learn on the other side of tragic loss. We would do well to listen carefully to the plea spoken so many years ago by Robert F. Kennedy to the people grieving the death of Dr. King.
Say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.
Let’s do that, right in the face of today’s angst over so many ills and wrongs. Let’s “say a prayer . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”