Commentary / History

“A Time of Sorrow and Shame”

By Nancy Spannaus

June 4, 2020—Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the June 5, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the third in a series of murders which decapitated the most promising political leadership of the United States. One by one, they fell: President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy himself.

Despite their considerable differences, I believe these men had one common characteristic which our nation desperately needed then, and still does today. Each in their own way was able to empathize with and touch the hearts of American citizens from widely different parts of the political and socioeconomic spectrum. They had the ability to bring people together around a vision of progress which involved racial harmony and economic improvement for all Americans.

Bobby Kennedy on his poverty tour in 1968

Exemplary of the quality of their leadership is the speech by Robert Kennedy, then a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President, on April 5, 1968. Kennedy had suspended much of his campaign after the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, but he decided to go ahead with this event at the City Club of Cleveland. While speechwriters gave him a draft, the candidate worked it over considerably.

On the day of King’s assassination, Kennedy had been the one to break the news to a crowd in Indianapolis. That impromptu heartfelt speech, which referenced his brother’s murder, was widely reported and credited with having helped prevent rioting in that city.

But the next day’s presentation, only 10 minutes long, rose to a higher level, and addresses the issue in ways that unfortunately remain relevant today. For that reason, I am reprinting it here today.

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself was murdered, as he declared victory in the California presidential primary. Clearly his murder was not a “mindless” act, nor were those of his brother Jack or Martin Luther King, Yet I believe that Bobby’s April 5 speech addresses the American people in a way they need to hear today.

It’s time to look beyond the violence in the streets and look at  the different kinds of violence which Kennedy identifies as well, especially the “violence of institutions” like Wall Street policy today.

You can listen to the speech here; the transcript, as published by the JFK Library, follows.

The April 5, 1968 Speech by Robert F. Kennedy

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity 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 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.

A city burns in the April 1968 riots.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, 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.

“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.”

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. 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.

"A Time of Sorrow and Shame"

John Lewis being beaten by the police

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.

Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive 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. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

Hungry children in Puerto Rico. (Children’s Defense Fund)

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline, we know what must be done. 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.

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. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. 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.

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. Of course, we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

Blacks and white unite to demand civil rights for all.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – 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 they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, which can be found here .

 

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