Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Call for Non-Violence: A Night and a Day with RFK

by Nomad

We look back at two particular days in April 1968 and two speeches by Senator Robert Kennedy following the traumatic murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis. The subject: whether senseless violence would triumph over peaceful change.

An Act of Blind Violence

Two days in early April forty-six years ago could perhaps be considered one of the darkest moments in the history of the United States. On April 4th, 39-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, shot down by a person or persons unknown. 
And for a moment, the Civil Rights Movement hung in the balance.

Would King's assassination in Memphis spell the end of the hopes of millions of black Americans? The question on many minds was whether they would now choose to forsake the non-violence King had advocated and match violence with violence and thereby destroy all of his efforts? 

On the evening of the assassination, President Johnson had issued a statement in which he asked every American to "reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence."
We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people.
In an effort to head off expected rioting, the president contacted and advised a host of mayors and governors. He urged them not overreact and not to use any more force than necessary to keep the peace. Johnson was not impressed with the general atmosphere of fatalism.
"I'm not getting through. They're all holing up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war."
Throughout the nation, there was a deep sense of foreboding. The nation held its breath.

On the day that King was killed, Senator Robert Kennedy had been delivering policy-based speeches at universities and other locations in Indiana. Only a month earlier, he had announced his intention of running in the 1968 presidential election. Just before boarding his plane to fly to Indianapolis, Kennedy heard the news that King had been shot. By the time he had landed, he learned that King was, in fact, dead.
According to reporters, Kennedy was extremely shaken by the news.

Upon his arrival in Indianapolis, Kennedy was faced with a problem. Many in his entourage feared for the Senator's safety. He had planned to attend a rally in the heart of Indianapolis's African-American neighborhoods. Would a white man be welcome?
As it turned out, it was to be Kennedy that would deliver the horrific news to the crowd.

Standing on a podium mounted on a flatbed truck, Kennedy
addressed the crowd and delivered the news about the assassination.  (If you listen to the recording of the speech, you can hear the shock and horror of the crowd as they received the news.)

To Tame the Savageness of Man

In all, it was a short speech, lasting just four minutes and fifty-seven seconds.  
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black ­­ considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible ­­ you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another.
There was, he said, a choice to be made. A difficult one, to be sure.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
It was a great temptation.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would 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.
We all have to make an effort, he told the crowd, to go beyond the moment and to make an effort to understand. What was needed wasn't violence and 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 crowds- still shocked into utter silence- to go home and say a prayer for the King family and for the nation.
We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, ­­ and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.
However, he assured the attendees, the vast majority of white people and black people wanted to live together, wanted to improve the quality of life, and wanted justice for all human beings. 
Quoting an ancient Greek poet, Kennedy said, that the time had come to "tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

That speech was credited with keeping the peace in the city. In Memphis too, the scene of the murder, it was quiet but for very different reasons.

On the night of the assassination, the city of Memphis- which was 40% black- ordered 4,000 members of the National Guard to enforce a dusk to dawn curfew.
For that reason there was, the reporters noted at the time, an eerie calm over the city. Said one LIFE photographer, "I was astonished by how desolate it all was."

That was not the case in the 110 US cities that saw unrest sparked by King's murder. Worst hit were Washington, Chicago and Baltimore which all saw widespread rioting and looting. When his fears were confirmed, the president reported said:
"What did you expect? I don't know why we're so surprised. When you put your foot on a man's neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what's he going to do? He's going to knock your block off."

The Day After

On that Friday morning arrived in Cleveland, where he had been scheduled to speak at the City Club. The night before he had delivered an impromptu speech He had decided to scrap his previously prepared remarks and penned an entirely new speech. It was titled "On the Mindless Menace of Violence."

It was not a day, he said, for politics. It was a day for reflection. The death of Martin Luther King invited us- if we dared- to look at violence.
It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. 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 and on.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by his assassin's bullet.
There can be no excuse for violence. A sniper is not a hero. And an angry crowd is not the voice of the people. 
Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.
Despite that, as a nation, we have created a culture of violence that "ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization."
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.
We have a growing tendency to worship the use or the threat of violence to achieve our goals, said Kennedy.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.
One thing was clear. Violence was not a solution and attempting to repress the reaction will bring only retaliation. It was a spiral downwards. The first symptoms of a form of sickness in society.

As bad as that prospect was, there was yet another species of violence. The gradual but the deadly 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.
This kind of violence robs a person of their dignity "by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men."
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.
This danger lies at every level, from our international relations to our personal relationships. Due to fear and hatred, our fellow human being will inevitably become less than human for us.
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.
The only question is whether we can find the inner strength as a nation to confront the problem. It was a vanity to make false distinctions between men.
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.
We had to always keep in mind that "those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can." 

After all, we shared a bond of common fate and a bond of common goals. In a moment of bitter prophecy, Kennedy told his audience: 
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.
We all know the ending to this story but for many of us what happened two months later in California is not merely a historic event, it will always be a personal moment.

On June 5, 1968, poised to take the Democratic nomination in the 1968 presidential election, Bobby, like his brother, like Dr. King, became a victim of inexplicable tragic violence. 
*   *   *  
One song, released in August 1968, served as a tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans, each champion of social change. It was called, "Abraham, Martin, and John." This version was sung by the Mahalia Jackson.