Hours after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the night of April 4, 1968, as news spread that the leader of the most successful non-violent reform movement in American history had died, riots exploded in 110 American cities. In Minneapolis, a man seized with disbelief declared he would kill the first white man he saw. He then shot his neighbor six times. Fires erupted in Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution, and Winston-Salem, the scene of peaceful sit-ins in an earlier, now-distant era.
One city remained quiet that night. Sen. Robert Kennedy spent the late afternoon of April 4 flying from Washington, D.C., to Indiana, where an important presidential primary loomed. During his White House crusade, Kennedy had enjoyed wide and enthusiastic support among black and poor voters, and he could expect a friendly audience that night in the Indianapolis ghetto. On the campaign plane, reporter Johnny Apple of The New York Times leaned toward the candidate with the shocking news that King had been shot. Apple later said that Kennedy, probably struck with memories of his brother’s murder, “sagged. His eyes went blank.”
Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had shared a cold, tense relationship. In love with the idea of coolness under pressure, Kennedy disliked what he saw as the excessive emotion of King’s rhetorical and political style. He found the preacher pompous and believed the black minister lacked the Kennedy family’s style of self-deprecating gallows humor. As his brother’s attorney general and chief political captain, Kennedy had resented the spotlight King had often placed on America’s ugly race relations, which Robert believed placed President Kennedy in an embarrassing political light on the world stage. He often found King’s campaigns an inconvenient distraction. Sadly, Kennedy and King usually saw each other as antagonists.
When the plane landed in Indianapolis, aides told Kennedy that King had died. Reports of riots developing across the country began to filter in. The city’s police chief feared unrest, thought the white politician would be unsafe facing a black audience, and advised him to cancel his appearance. His wife, Ethel Kennedy, begged him not to go. Frightened for their own safety, Kennedy’s police escort abandoned the senator when he entered the ghetto.
Around one thousand people had shown up to hear the Kennedy brother speak. The crowd, about 70 percent African American, had not yet heard the news about King. It would be Kennedy’s job to tell them. Adam Walinsky, a staffer, tried to hand his boss a prepared speech, but Kennedy refused it. He would speak off the cuff and from the heart. As complicated as his feelings were about King, the still-mourning brother understood the deep feeling of loss his audience would soon feel.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for you all, and I think sad news for all our citizens and people who love peace all over the world,” Kennedy said, gingerly feeling his way toward the awful truth. “And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.” The audience screamed and many murmured in disbelief, “No, no.” Kennedy then improvised the best speech in his tragically brief political career.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with – [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.
"But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
"Even 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 and lawlessness, but is 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."
In spite of the terrible emotions that now enveloped Kennedy’s audience, the crowd cheered an honest expression of loss and a hope for reconciliation. There were no riots that night in Indianapolis, which became a rare exception. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King and provided a plane to fly King’s body back to Atlanta. The United States, he probably realized, turned a corner to a meaner reality that night.
At the corner of 14th and U Streets in Washington, D.C., Stokely Carmichael spoke to a mob of 400. “Go home and get your guns,” he said. “When the white man comes he is coming to kill you. I don’t want any black blood on the street. Go home and get you a gun and then come back because I got me a gun.” The next day, Friday, fires roared just two blocks from the White House. Riot troops gathered on the White House lawn. Violence had not reached so close to the president’s mansion since British troops ransacked the city and burned the White House down in 1814. Across the country, 39 died and 2,500 suffered injuries.
After Robert Kennedy’s performance in Indianapolis, black leaders began asking him to make speeches to African American audiences to calm the waters. Kennedy became white America’s emissary to its anguished and angry black population. Temporarily suspending his campaign schedule, Kennedy spoke on the King assassination in Cleveland on April 5. He wove together political assassination, the violence of poverty, and American violence in places like Vietnam.
Referring to King’s death, and by implication his brother’s death in Dallas, Kennedy noted that, “[T]here is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, as the shot, or the bomb in the night. This is the 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. It is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Kennedy delivered to the Cleveland audience his own prophetic oration on the heartbreaking American addiction to gunplay. “This is a time of shame and sorrow,” Kennedy said. “It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event today, to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives . .
"It is not the concern of one race. The victims of 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. Why?”
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.