Robert Kennedy and the power of words
By Jon Dusza, News Editor
Over the last few years, the conversations which have dominated our country and news cycle have been defined by inflamed, bitter speech. Donald Trump’s successful first campaign for the presidency saw a new, outrageous statement seemingly every week. His re-election campaign ended in an effort to overthrow the United States government after months of fiery rhetoric based on lies. “F— your feelings” has become a rallying cry for people of all political beliefs. Just over the last few months, we have seen a rise in anti-semetic rhetoric and members of the LGBTQ+ community being falsely branded as pedophiles and rapists. The temperature of our conversations is high, and it is because of the words we use. It has been high before, and through looking to the past, we can see that as much as words inflame, they can also calm.
The year is 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and the height of the Vietnam War, turning the war into one of the most unpopular pieces of public policy in American history. The Civil Rights movement was still in full swing and beginning to expand to include other oppressed groups, but it was met with violent backlash from white supremacists. Protests began in cities and on college campuses, which escalated to unprecedented levels of rioting and police brutality. New workers’ rights movements sprung up throughout the United States, bringing strikes all through the country. All of this was underscored by what would turn out to be one of the most divisive and painful presidential elections in American history. It was a long, painful year and it wasn’t even April.
On April 4, 1968, the nation was reeling from one of the most surprising news stories of the decade: less than a week earlier, President Lyndon Johnson, who had won a historic, utterly overwhelming landslide election, announced that he would not seek re-election. LBJ had been one of the most important figures in American politics for over two decades, so his retirement was shocking. But then, at around 6 p.m. in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
At that moment, Robert F. Kennedy was in a plane above Indiana, campaigning to be president in the crucial Indiana primary. He was scheduled to go to a campaign event in Indianapolis in a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood. When he landed and heard the news about Dr. King, the police immediately told Kennedy not to go. The police considered it a virtual guarantee that the city would succumb to rioting after they heard the news about MLK. Remembering the fate of his brother, John F. Kennedy, they did not want to risk RFK’s security.
Yet RFK insisted on going. He sent his wife to their hotel and went in all alone, without any police escort, as the police were too scared of the crowd to go to a rally that seemed doomed to end in flames. Kennedy got up on stage and spoke for less than five minutes extemporaneously about the assassination, saying, “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.”
That night, over 100 major American cities erupted into riots. But Indianapolis, where Robert Kennedy spoke, remained calm.
Politics is a dirty game, as it always has been, but in that moment of national strife, Kennedy showed that politics and politicians do not have to be in it for personal gain or cheap political points but to actually make an effort to make a difference in the world. His speech shows us that just as much as words can be destructive, as we have seen over the last few years, they can heal and make a positive difference. Politics today is defined by inflamed, extreme rhetoric. When concerns are raised about that, they are shouted down with “[place politician here] doesn’t mean that” or “once they get into office they’ll tone it down” or “they’re just words, they don’t really matter.” But they do. We can have leaders in this country who do not spew divisive rhetoric and try to facilitate outrage to divide us, we just have to hold them to that standard. The job is ours and ours alone, and for our sake and our country’s sake, we must make an effort to do so.
It also must be remembered that Robert Kennedy was not a perfect man, in fact he was far from it, having been an architect of the disaster in Vietnam, wiretapping Martin Luther King as attorney general and infamously speaking down to a delegation of Black intellectuals including the likes of James Baldwin. But between then and his run for president in 1968, Kennedy sought to make amends. He fought hard for both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. He gave a voice in the Senate to those he represented in the inner city. He went down to the Mississippi Delta and looked into the eyes of starving children with bloated stomachs and adults who had never learned to read or write. When his brother died from the assassin’s bullet on that day in Dallas, Robert Kennedy, who grew up in one of the most privileged families in America and acted like it, knew for the first time that gut-wrenching pain those who were less fortunate than him felt daily. He took that pain and used it as inspiration to seek to understand the pain of others and be their voice in Congress, and he did it. If the man who spied on Martin Luther King Jr. because he thought he was a communist could make such a difference with words, so can we, and so can anyone who has a large platform like our politicians.
This story ends in tragedy. Two months later, almost to the hour, Robert Kennedy, too, was shot dead by the assassin’s bullet. But for that one moment in time, he showed the very best of what politics can be. Next week will be the 55th anniversary of that speech. With the terrible division which comes from our rhetoric today, it is worth remembering this speech, both as a standard to which we hold ourselves and as hope that just as easily as words can destroy, they can also heal.