I have been trying to find the words to describe the impact I felt when I heard that Martin Luther King was dead. Being relatively young, only in my teens, it seemed like his death came so quickly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In reality, years had passed. Although the nation had absorbed the shock of that presidential assassination, I felt like we were still reeling from that terrible moment in our nation’s history. At the time, it seemed like only weeks since that had happened.
This is how I recall that terrible day when Martin Luther King was killed. The date? April 4, 1968. While I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, odds were high that I was in our family room, either doing homework or playing some game with my sister.
Then a special report suddenly appeared on television. The reporter? Dan Rather for CBS News, looking very young as I review that film today, but that didn’t strike me at the time. The message was too powerful to think of anything else – and certainly not a reporter’s appearance.
If you’d like to get the full impact of that particular news bulletin on CBS news which was delivered by Dan Rather as well as the rather vague early details of the first report, you can see it here or may other places online: www.youtube.com/watch
Looking at that news flash brings back such memories, including the utter shock. When Dan Rather told us that King was truly dead, my parents gasped and my mother started to cry. So did I. Perhaps we were all still naive, but it just seemed hard to grasp that this man was gone. Dan Rather’s words washed over us, noting that King had been shot as he stood on a balcony on Memphis, Tennessee. Rather said only that it had happened “late today,” leaving us to piece together the details as other reports came in.
Rather also noted that King had been planning to lead a march “next Monday.” Rather then turned the newscast over to another reporter who not only updated the news but provided details about looting and then added that looting was already taking place. Curfews were put in place. I remember that it was odd to state that most of the looting seemed to be taking place in “liquor stores.” You can hear those words on video even today. It struck me as racist even then, since no actual sources were noted for that statement, leaving the words to hang in the air.
In our house, the phone did not stop ringing, not until there was a period of time when I recall that the phones were simply jammed from the overload. Mostly, though, there were long moments of quiet weeping followed by quiet. No one knew what to say, how to ease the pain. We spoke of all that we could recall about Martin Luther King, what he had done in the world, the life he’d led. We recalled his dignity and often calm manner in the face of racism and challenges.
For me, being young, I tried to comprehend that he was indeed dead. I could simply not believe it. It seemed unfathomable but one look at my parents’ faces and I knew that it was true. Their reaction hit me even harder than the news reports.
No one I knew felt anything but deep, deep sadness. I know there were areas of the city that were racially divided. There were “black neighborhoods” and “white neighborhoods.” But I hadn’t been raised to think in those terms or to live as someone who was racist, so I didn’t experience that part of the response to this death. I didn’t hear racist remarks from friends or neighbors or relatives after his death. In our neighborhood, things didn’t work that way, but racism was certainly a part of the larger community. I wasn’t totally naive about that.
Robert Kennedy delivers a pivotal speech in Indianapolis, on the evening of Martin Luther King’s assassination
Although none of us immediately understood the impact of Robert Kennedy’s visit to Indianapolis on the day that King died, it turns out that he made an astonishing speech. Being in Indianapolis that day, living there, this is the moment that stands out for me. It was the talk of the town, and I’m proud that the crowd that was waiting to see him dispersed peacefully after he broke the news to them.
Only time would fully reveal how much this speech affected those who heard it. Did I hear it in person? Was I there at the gathering of mostly African-American listeners? No. But I lived in the city and couldn’t help but hear the talk, the amazement, the awe that people felt about what had happened. It truly shook Indianapolis to the core. Even as a self-obsessed teen, I couldn’t help but be affected by that speech.
I also saw videos and news coverage of that speech and have read – and reread it – many times in the days, weeks and years since. I have spoken to policemen who spoke to security and other personnel who were there. Robert Kennedy happened to be coming to Indianapolis to get the 1968 Democratic nomination for President. He was told of King’s death before he gave his speech.
By many accounts (see sources at end of this article), he was told to avoid stopping in what was considered a dangerous area of the city. He was advised against speaking to what was assumed to be a predominantly Afro-American crowd. Still, knowing the potential risks, Robert Kennedy decided to go ahead and speak to the crowd — many who had not even heard the news yet.
Imagine going into a crowd of laughing and excited people. Imagine having to give them that tragic news, the information that Martin Luther King had been killed. How many would have the courage to do so? How many would let a spokesperson handle it or simply do a press or televised speech instead? How many would put their own safety first?
But Kennedy did not. Instead, he gave this speech, which is shown here: www.youtube.com/watch. To see the speech in text form you can see it here at the History Place website: www.historyplace.com/speeches/rfk.htm
I would urge you to look at both versions, video and text. I believe Robert Kennedy spoke from the heart. He didn’t have time to have a wholly prepared speech. He, too, was in shock and pain. The moment had to have brought back memories of his own brother, John F. Kennedy, and his assassination. Two men, both shot and killed so quickly, before anyone could really react or protect them. Yes, two very different situations, two different races, but both men were loved and respected by many.
Robert Kennedy started out by telling the Indianapolis crowd that he some “very sad news” and if you watch the black and white video (technology wasn’t so developed then and people didn’t have video cameras on their cellphones or in their pockets, not even the news media people), you can hear the shock and hesitation in his voice. He is winging it, clearly – or so it appears to me. I found that moment very moving.
When he says the words, “Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee,” the crowd erupts with screams and cries. Then Robert Kennedy says words that some have considered controversial. First he acknowledges the pain, hatred and anger that many might feel in knowing that a “white man” had killed King. Kennedy even says that his own brother was killed by a “white man.” While pushing this analogy might seem a stretch, if you get a chance to see that film, watch as it pans over the crowd… one that was screaming in anger, pain and grief only seconds before.
Pain which cannot forget….
They are beginning to quiet, to listen to this man. That is my take, anyway. It is one of the strongest memories I have of that day, seeing that news coverage of his speech and reading the words he said. Then he says (and I believe this part was ad libbed, amazingly so, using a quote from the poet Aeschylus):
“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.”
I have pondered those words many times. The pain that falls upon us while asleep as we relive the pain of loss, of assassinations and grief. Who can not relate to that? Who has not lost someone to death and mourned that loss? Who has felt angry even as wisdom comes – in time?
What we need in the United States is not division, said Robert Kennedy…
I feel that Robert Kennedy tried to evoke some of Martin Luther King’s teaching by reminding the crowd that this was a trial and a test and that it was also a pivotal moment. People could rise up in anger and riot or they could decide to embrace compassion for all people who suffered, black or white. He asked that people return home, say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King and also for the country.
He stated the belief that “the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people want to live together…and want justice for all human beings.” Amazingly, his words were followed by applause! He had managed to convey such terrible news and still people responded to his words with grace and with their hearts. I am still in awe of that.
It gives me hope, even today, that the people in our country can come together and get through difficult times, just as Kennedy noted we had done before and would have to do again. His words seem particularly timely today, as does the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, as we head into an important election year.
Of course, Robert Kennedy was himself gunned down so soon afterwards, during a celebration of his victory in the California primary. But when I think of the day Martin Luther King Jr died, I sensed that there would be riots and anger to follow — and there were. But not in Indianapolis, not even on the night when Robert Kennedy told a crowd that a man many of them loved and admired was dead. That night, it was peaceful in Indianapolis. That night, a small miracle occurred. That night, the legacy of Martin Luther King and the hope that people could come together and mourn with peace instead of violence — no matter what race or ethnicity — came true.
The History Place website at www.historyplace.com/speeches/rfk.htm
Text of Robert Kennedy’s speech from April 4, 1968
Video of Robert Kennedy’s speech
My own recollections and memories of friends and family
News bulletins produced by CBS News and featuring Dan Rather (see links)