A Time for Calm

Mr. Palermo is the author of In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia University Press, 2001).

In this time of heightened passions and emotions among Americans resulting from the horrific attacks of September 11th, along with the mainstream media's steady stream of disturbing images with commentators calling for an aggressive United States military response, we must stop for a moment to reflect and consider carefully whether moving toward more bloodshed, violence, and hatred is the path our nation should take.

On April 4, 1968, passions were also running high in this country; Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and 110 American cities exploded into violence and rioting causing 39 deaths, 2,500 injuries, and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was then campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, heard the news of King's murder just before reaching a previously scheduled rally in the African-American community of Indianapolis. Kennedy spoke extemporaneously, calling for calm amidst the explosion of anger and rage that descended upon America at that time, and Indianapolis remained peaceful that night despite the intense emotions and urge among many to strike out. Kennedy's brief remarks that evening possess added meaning in the current climate of white heat emotions that have already led to sporadic attacks on Arab-Americans and a volatile martial spirit in this country; they are reprinted here in their entirety:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am 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. I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight.

"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, 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 who were 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 for 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 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 and say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King. But more importantly, 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.

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Eric Bergerud - 9/23/2001

I too wish Robert Kennedy were alive to help us through a time of national trial. Unfortunately Kennedy was murdered in cold blood by a Palestinian fanatic. It's not easy being a peace maker.

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