When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning in the Midwest. Kennedy broke the news to a shocked crowd in Indianapolis that evening and offered compelling words of solace, noting that he, too, had a lost his brother to an assassin’s bullet.
The following day, Kennedy came to Cleveland. He cancelled every other campaign event that day, but kept an appointment at the City Club of Cleveland. There, he delivered not a standard stump speech, but a meditation that mourned King, embraced his message of non-violence and challenged America to confront the “mindless menace of violence” that pervades society.
“He spoke with such an eloquence, that the impression he made on me at 22 years of age lasted all of my life,” said former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan.
Hagan was overseas serving in the Army when the speech was given, but watched it later with fellow soldiers. “We were all draftees, sitting in a barracks in Germany when we watched it,” said Hagan. “He spoke to our hearts in the sense of what was honorable about our country.”
Kennedy spoke of the futility of violence in all its forms – the violence of the “assassin’s bullet,” of riots, and of wars. But also the violence of systemic oppression and racism:
“For 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.”
The speech still resonates, according to Hagan. “This culture of violence and indifference goes on to this day,” said Hagan. “We are still struggling with a basic sense of human decency, and that’s what Robert Kennedy was talking about 50 years ago.”
This piece first appeared on Ideastream. See the original post here.