April 4, 1968
Bobby Kennedy, You Were The Man!
By Jack Coll
April 4, 2015
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and sometime ago I wrote an article about how James Brown saved Boston following the assassination. Brown saved Boston from the riots, fires and lawlessness that was happening across the country as Americans protested King’s assassination. As more than 100 United States cities went up in flames during the protest James Brown was called upon by the Mayor of Boston, the Mayor of Washington D. C. and eventually by the President of the United States of America to help calm the nation.
Well a brief campaign stop in Indianapolis, Indiana by Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of Kings assassination may very well have saved that city, let’s back up a day to April 3, 1968.
Against the advice of his advisors Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to march in support of 1300 striking sanitation workers. The city’s sanitation workers were making 70 cents an hour, but that’s not what the strike was about, the strike was about the treatment of its African American employees, who were being treated like third world citizens. So King rolled into Memphis and set up camp at the Lorraine Motel where he often stayed when in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel wasn’t located in the up-town section of the city but King liked to stay there to be among the very people he represented, King checked into room 306 on the upper floor.
Following the march on April 3, King gave what would be his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, a speech that he almost never made. (A different story for another time) King talked about the past quite a bit during his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, but it was his eerie words in the final paragraph as he finished his speech that would stick with everyone for the rest of their life, it was almost as if he knew the end was near, as though he had been tipped off that the assassination was in the works, the end was coming.
In King’s words:
April 3, 1968
“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” Speech
Well, I don’t know what will happen now.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead.
But it doesn’t matter with me now.
Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind like anybody,
I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about me now.
I just want to do God’s will.
And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I’ve looked over.
And I’ve seen the promised land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.
And I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The following day King was preparing to go to dinner at the home of a local minster Reverend Billy Kyles, King emerged from his room on the second floor balcony at the Lorraine Hotel and lingered to talk to his driver Solomon Jones and also chatted with Reverend Ralph Abernathy on the balcony. At exactly 6:00, a shot rang out from Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House located across the street, and King was struck in the face. King was barely alive and rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital. By 6:15 King arrived at the hospital unconscious but still alive.
During the course of that fateful April 4th day, Bobby Kennedy, a United States senator from New York was campaigning to earn the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination when he learned that King had been shot in Memphis. Earlier in the day Kennedy spoke at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Just before boarding a plane to attend a rally in Indianapolis, Kennedy learned that King had been shot. By the time Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis he learned that King had died. Everyone around Kennedy tried in vain to force him to cancel the rally for his safety.
The rally was scheduled at a park located at 17th and Broadway in the heart of Indianapolis‘s African America ghetto, a really bad and dangerous section of town. Kennedy refused to cancel and his speech writers started to rewrite his speech to express condolences for King and his family.
When Kennedy reached the airport in Indianapolis the news of Kings death caused concern among not only Kennedy’s representatives but also among city officials and police department, fearing the worst with riots and Kennedy’s well-being.
Kennedy canceled a stop at his campaign headquarters and continued on to the rally site where a crowd had gathered to see him speak.
Kennedy’s press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, and speechwriter Adam Walinsky drafted notes for Kennedy to use but Kennedy refused to look at, or use the notes, but instead drafted his own notes on the ride to the rally.
As Kennedy’s car entered the neighborhood his police escort left him and his driver on their own. As Kennedy stepped out of the car just after 7:00, minutes earlier Walter Cronkite of the CBS Evening News, was called back on air after finishing the evening news to report that Martin Luther King had died from a single bullet wound. Before Kennedy appeared on camera a HOT microphone picked up Kennedy’s voice asking if the people in the crowd had been notified of Kings death? Most of the people in the park had been waiting in the rain for several hours and weren’t even aware that King had been shot an hour earlier.
When Kennedy asked the question you can hear a man’s voice saying “We have left that up to you so you could handle it.” Kennedy walked up onto the back of a flatbed truck, and softly asked the crowd to lower the campaign signs. As far as Kennedy was concerned there would be no campaign rally on this evening, in a soft monotone voice almost quivering, Kennedy addressed the crowd, “I have some very sad news…and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”
The crowd let out a collective gasp, with some of them crying in the background. Kennedy spoke 618 words in four minutes and fifty-seven seconds, he never smiled once and was held up by crowd applause twice.
“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between his fellow human beings, and he died in the cause of that effort.” Although Kennedy had scribbled some notes on a paper, he never once throughout the speech referred to the notes, when watching the speech, you’ll notice the paper in his hands, but he never once looks at it.
Kennedy’s soothing words had a calming effect over the crowd. “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,” said Kennedy.
The crowd stood hushed, hanging on Kennedy’s every word, “For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who are responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge.” News and information was coming in rather quickly when King was shot and at one point police were given a tip that two white guys were seen fleeing the scene, this information of course was later proved false, it was a lone assassin.
Kennedy continued, “We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward 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 compassion and love.”
Then Kennedy said something that shocked his committee and aids, as he referred to his brother’s death, Bobby never spoke publicly about his brother, John’s death.
“For those of you who are black and are 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 can also 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.”
It was rather amazing that Kennedy could mentally reach out and quote one of his favorite poets Aeschylus. Kennedy said, “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.”
Before he finished the speech, in true Bobby Kennedy form, without notes or rehearsal, without thinking about it, or practicing it, Kennedy spoke words that are now engraved in marble close to his burial site at Arlington National Cemetery, and the text reads:
“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 whether they be black.
Kennedy asked the crowd to return home to pray for the country and for the King family further stating that he believed the country could do well but had difficult times ahead.
“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.”
Over the next several days riots and protest exploded in more than 100 major cities in the United States including Chicago, New York City, Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburg, and Baltimore among others, the protest was responsible for 35 deaths, injuring nearly 3,000 citizens nationwide. Throughout the country more than seventy thousand army and National Guard troops were called upon to help restore order.
Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis, Indiana is considered to be one of the greatest speeches in all of American history, and credited with saving Indianapolis from the fires, protest and lawlessness that happened around the country. Politicians today, would never consider, nor would they be allowed by handlers to step up to a microphone, in a crises, without notes or a speech written by writers, consultants or pollsters, what Kennedy did on April 4, 1968, was, and still is considered nothing short of remarkable.
Bobby Kennedy himself was killed by an assassin’s bullet just 63 days after Martin Luther King’s death. Just after he defeated Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary Kennedy gave a heartfelt thank you speech to supporters in the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California in the early morning hours of June 6th. Bobby was led through the kitchen area when another piece of crap with a gun pulled the trigger, and the nation was once again for the second time in a two month period forced to grieve the death of a national figure.
It was Bobby’s brother Ted Kennedy who gave the eulogy on June 8, 1968 at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ted Kennedy gave a ten minute heart-felt speech in front of the Kennedy family along with White-house staff including the President of the United States. But once again, in true Kennedy form, words that will long be remembered were truly fitting for Bobby, as Ted stated:
My brother need not be idealized,
or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,
to be remembered simply as a good and decent man,
who saw wrong and tried to right it,
saw suffering and tried to heal it,
saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today,
pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others
will someday come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation,
to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”
Bobby Kennedy’s four minute and fifty seven second speech on April 4, 1968 has truly stood the test of time. If you find yourself in front of a computer, punch up “Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Try to understand the situation of King’s assassination, try to put yourself in the setting of speaking off the back of a truck in a park at 17th and Broadway after dark, in the rain in the heart of Indianapolis’s ghetto, and hit play.
Guys like John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were special people living in a very special time, who achieved extraordinary things in a relatively short amount of time.
Should you ever find yourself passing through the state of Indiana, in the vicinity of Marion County, it would be worth your time to locate King Park at 17th Street and Broadway, Historical markers and a monument are located on the very site Kennedy gave his speech on April 4, 1968, a speech responsible for keeping Indianapolis calm, while other cities in the country reacted with violence.