Tragic words of wisdom from violent 1968


INDIANAPOLIS — In the midst of this current presidential election year, we have witnessed cavalier and reckless rhetoric suggesting political violence. There has been talk of a second civil war, of “retribution” and “bloodbaths” and “vermin” poisoning the blood of America.

For those of us who lived through 1968, the year was racked with violence. It began with the vicious Tet offensive in Vietnam which sent scores of American troops home in body bags, and then came the assassinations. In reaction, it yielded two of the greatest extemporaneous speeches in the history of mankind.

On April 3, 1968, a weary Dr. Martin Luther King entered Memphis, the scene of a municipal sanitation worker strike. King achieved a second wind, went to the rally, and began an emotional stream of consciousness.

“They were telling me, now it doesn’t matter,” King said, describing his departure from Atlanta and security concerns about the plane. “We had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.

“And then I got to Memphis,” King continued. “And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King said. “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. And 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.”

Tragically, King would be cut down by an assassin’s bullet the following day.

U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning on April 4, 1968 for president in Muncie when he learned of Dr. King’s death. When Kennedy reached Indianapolis, he was told that his safety could not be guaranteed. But he went into the inner city with a single aide, got up on the trailer of a flatbed truck, and told an unknowing audience of mostly African-American citizens this:

“I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you,” Kennedy began. “Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

The assembled crowd collectively gasped.

As dozens of American cities exploded into violence, Kennedy observed, “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.”

And then Sen. Kennedy said this: “We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

‘Even 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.’”

Kennedy would be killed by an assassin in Los Angeles two months later. The words he spoke in Indianapolis, one of the few American big cities that remained calm that terrible night, would be etched on a wall near his Arlington National Cemetery gravesite.

The violence continued through 1968. I remember as a 12-year-old boy finding my parents and their friends huddled around a TV set at a friend’s lakefront Long Beach home. Some 35 miles across Lake Michigan, Chicago cops and protesters were battling at Grant Park. The notion that the American democracy was unraveling before our eyes was unmistakable.

On April 4, 2008, as the future first Black American president - Barack Obama - campaigned in Fort Wayne, Ethel Kennedy and her son Max came to the Kennedy-King Memorial at the scene of Sen. Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech 40 years prior.

“After the ceremony my Mom reminded me of a poem, one of my Dad’s favorites and my Mother’s too,” Max Kennedy said. “Would you mind reading it?”

“OK,” Ethel Kennedy said. “I’ll do you such a favor.”

Ethel Kennedy then said: “Two heroic hearts who for a short time, traveled toward the sun and singed the vivid air ... with their honor.”

Mrs. Kennedy quipped, “There it is right there,” with Max responding, “Thank you Mom.”

Heroic hearts and honor. Here on the good Earth, in the citadel of democracy.

These are words America needs to hear in 2024.


Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol. State Affairs reporter Jarred Meeks contributed to this column.