The world reeled in grief 50 years ago today when word broke out that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn.
The grief turned to anger in many cities across the United States. African-Americans reacted violently. They rioted. They burned cities.
But one major American city — Indianapolis, Ind. — remained calm. Why? Another man who was just two months from his own tragic and untimely death spoke to a crowd and broke the terrible news to them.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was running for president in 1968. He heard about the shooting. He asked his aides if the crowd that was waiting to hear a campaign stump speech knew that Dr. King had died. He was told they likely didn’t know. Bobby Kennedy had to tell them.
So he did. He spoke for six minutes after telling them he had “terrible news” to deliver. In just a few minutes, RFK managed to lend a word of comfort and, indeed, empathy. His own brother, President Kennedy, had been felled by a gunman less than five years earlier. “He was killed by a white man,” Sen. Kennedy said in seeking to quell the feelings of hatred that some in the crowd might harbor “toward all white people.”
He spoke of the need for more “love” and “compassion” in the United States.
The result in Indianapolis was that its residents didn’t react in the manner that tore many other cities apart.
Robert Kennedy, with those brief words, delivered perhaps one of the greatest political speeches in U.S. history. Its message, though, reached far beyond the partisan concerns of a politician seeking election to the nation’s highest office.
The politician spoke to a nation in the deepest grief imaginable.
Tragically, he would march on to his own horrifying end, triggering yet another round of grief.