The United States of America is in crisis. We have been through this before, in other contexts. However, we are lacking the kind of wisdom that comes from the top of our political leadership that we have heard during previous crises.
The Dallas Morning News today published an editorial calling for such wisdom as we grapple with issues relating to police brutality and racial injustice. The newspaper cited a speech given by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, at that moment a candidate for president, in the hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin.
RFK said this:
“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. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. 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 with compassion and love.
“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 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. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
“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.’
“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 they be black.
“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
“But 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.
“Let us 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.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Sen. Kennedy spoke those words to a crowd of African-Americans gathered for a political rally in Indianapolis, Ind. While many cities in the land erupted in violence that evening, Indianapolis remained calm. Why? Because citizens were somehow assured that at least one political leader was listening to them and he cared about them.
A gunman would still RFK’s voice forever just two months later.
We are made poorer as a result. We need that kind of wisdom in this moment of grief.