The day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had announced his decision to run for President, gave a speech at the Cleveland City Club. He said that it was not a time for politics, but a time of “shame and sorrow,” and he spoke on the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives”:
“No one—no matter where he lives or what he does—can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on . . .We seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.”
Robert Kennedy continued: “When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered. We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear—only a common desire to retreat from each other—only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.”
These words speak clearly to the moment in our nation today. At the time our dark, deep despair at Dr. King’s death was leavened only by the fact that we still had Robert Kennedy. But two months after giving this speech, Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next day, 55 years ago on my birthday, June 6, 1968. I never wore the beautiful bracelet my fiancé Peter Edelman, Robert Kennedy’s legislative assistant, had bought at the Ambassador Hotel as a birthday present.
As I walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City where Robert Kennedy’s body lay in state, a weeping Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, clung to me asking over and over, “What are we going to do now?” Riding the train from New York City to Washington, D.C. bearing Robert Kennedy’s body, I was deeply moved by the stricken faces of young and old, Black and white mourners who lined the train route and mirrored my stricken heart. The single most poignant moment for me was when the hearse carrying Robert Kennedy’s body to rest near his brother John Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery crossed Memorial Bridge and paused for a brief time at the Lincoln Memorial, allowing the poor people still in Resurrection City from the Poor People’s Campaign to bid farewell while singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
In his speech in Cleveland Robert Kennedy had also said: “There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter . . . ” He said for all of this there were no final answers, but we knew what we must do:
“We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land.”
His work became our work, and 55 years later, the work goes on.
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.