Our View: RFK dared to ask, what kind of nation are we?

June 6, 2018

The night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy broke the news to a crowd gathered in a mostly black neighbohood in Indianapolis.

“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”

According to news reports of that ghastly night i n April 1968, people gasped and cried in disbelief. Kennedy was standing on the back of a truck and was wearing a topcoat worn by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated five years earlier.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort,” Kennedy said that night in Memphis. “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.”

One direction is “filled with bitterness, with hatred and a desire for revenge,” he said. “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.”

He called for “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.”

And he asked for prayers. “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.”

Two months later, Kennedy himself was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullets at age 42. He had just won the California Democratic primary and was on his way to being the Democratic presidential nominee, likely to face former Vice President Richard Nixon in November.

What if?

Many Americans have asked that question ever since. What if Robert Kennedy had lived? He, along with Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, had challenged President Johnson and forced him to quit the race, promising an end to the Vietnam War, and a new generation of progress on issues of justice, race, health care, environmental protection and more.

What if he had lived? Would the war have ended earlier, sparing thousands of U.S. casualities? Would we have avoided the political and constitutional trauma of Watergate, which contributed to an erosion of Americans’ confidence in our institutions?

History is an endless train of accidents, missed opportunities and what ifs, but Robert Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago today was a singular tragedy. For those of us who lived through the killings of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, their deaths are wounds that do not heal.

You may not have voted for them or believed in their agenda, but Americans of good will surely can agree that their assassinations forever changed the direction of our country, by bullets, not ballots.

There’s no comparable moment in our history where three national leaders — two of them political leaders and the third a towering civil rights leader with whom they worked — were killed, leaving a generational political void that others filled.

Robert Kennedy wasn’t a saint, anymore than JFK and King were. As his brother Ted said at his funeral, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Without idealizing or enlarging him, it’s enough to say that Robert Kennedy cared deeply for this country and its people, he had a vision for America that was compelling and compassionate for millions of people, then and now, and that he died violently for it.

Today would be a good day to remember him, and also “to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”