Robert Costa's notebook: "Make Gentle the Life of this World"

By Robert Costa

Every April, I make a habit of pulling up some of Rev. Martin Luther King’s greatest speeches on YouTube. (My “Washington Week” colleague, Emilie Plesset, has compiled five of them here.) Sometimes, you can learn so much from just listening and thinking hard about those words. I also listen again to Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on the night King was killed. Kennedy had this powerful mix of grit and wistfulness, with a sweeping sense of history. You can hear Kennedy speaking from the heart while carefully addressing several complicated issues as he makes his remarks — the sudden shock of assassination, the pain of racial tensions, and the lasting power of King’s life.

The line that always gets me is near the end. Kennedy tells the crowd, and the country at large at a turbulent time, that they all must “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.” On a night of riots elsewhere and understandable fury, Kennedy chose to speak with strength while sharing the grief of those before him. But he did not stoke the anger. To me, an amateur student of history, that was true leadership.

Over the past day, I’ve been reading about Kennedy’s speech as the 50th anniversary of King’s death is marked with celebrations of King’s legacy. The context of Kennedy’s appearance, then and now, is as notable as the eulogy he delivered on that flatbed truck.

A special bond with the crowd

Kennedy made a rare mention of his slain brother, President John F. Kennedy, as he spoke to the mostly African-American crowd. As Liam Stack notes in The New York Times, “Kennedy’s progressive politics and history of personal tragedy were the source of that credibility.” That deeply personal reference is part of why Kennedy could speak of reconciliation and calm on a night when “riots tore through dozens of other cities.”

“Kennedy’s speech was itself a prayer, a quiet plea for a shared understanding. Its wellsprings were deep in Kennedy’s own experience, after the murder of his brother, John Kennedy, in 1963; the grief he had carried in the years since; all that he had come to understand about the roots of black unrest, the depths of black frustration with the political process, and the growing focus of black communities on self-determination,” Jeff Shesol writes in The New Yorker.

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Kennedy and King are linked forever

Robert Kennedy would be assassinated in June 1968. In mere months, the country tragically lost two generational leaders who were connected to the civil rights movement and the push for change, only five years after John F. Kennedy’s death. My colleague at The Washington Post, Steven Livingston, recently wrote a book about JFK and King and observed that the challenges RFK spoke about in Indiana continue to resonate as America grapples with matters of violence and justice. “In the past 50 years, after the promise of racial equality emerged in the early 1960s, America has stumbled backward,” Livingston wrote, pointing to why the message of the Kennedys and King still matter.

Robert Kennedy and King were not always aligned. “He did not have a particularly close relationship with King, having once authorized wiretapping of his phones at the request of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,” the Post reports. “But Kennedy had come to greatly respect King, his campaign echoing the concerns of the civil rights leader for the poor and disenfranchised.”

By April 1968, they were kindred spirits.

“I just felt like something had died in all of us when we heard that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the iconic civil-rights leader, who was with RFK on that April night. “But I said to myself, well, we still have Bobby. And a short time later, he was gone.”