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Posts Tagged ‘Robert F. Kennedy’

RFK, MLK: “This mindless menace of violence in America”

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit [of hatred and revenge] flourish any longer in our land.” —Robert F. Kennedy, April 5, 1968


On the day after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the Cleveland City Club about the epidemic of violence that was draining the blood and spirit from America. The immediate context was the killing of Dr. King. In the background of course was the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. In the future lay Robert Kennedy’s own assassination only two months later, and countless other shootings and killings, including the near-assassination of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in January 2011. Her shooting is called to mind by Kennedy’s reference to the ease with which “men of all shades of sanity” can acquire weapons. Click here for a YouTube clip with audio of the speech (and more).*


“Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation”

Remarks of Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the Cleveland City Club

Cleveland, Ohio, April 5, 1968

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. . . .

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.

. . . 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. . . .

Some look 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.

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 not 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 learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.”

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.

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.


* Click here for a YouTube video of the speech: decent audio, good imagery, and annoying, unnecessary background music.

More speeches by Robert F. Kennedy can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum online.

For more about extremism and violence in America, see our previous posts “Rev. King and Gun Violence: ‘Study War No More” (1/17/11) and “ ‘Kill the Bill’ vs. ‘Stop the War’: A Tale of Two Protests” (4/11/10).

For more on the domestic firearms industry, see Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.


Bottom photo of Robert F. Kennedy by Yoichi R. Okamoto, January 28, 1964.


4/4, 44 Years Ago . . .

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

“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.” —Aeschylus


It was the night of April 4, 1968, when word spread that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain by an assassin in Memphis. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then campaigning in the Democratic primaries, was at an event in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis. He asked campaign aides, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” They did not. Senator Kennedy’s words to the crowd, delivered impromptu with scarcely a glance at the notes in his hand, kept the peace that night, at least in that part of Indianapolis, and continue to resonate with wisdom and consolation. (Click here for an audio version [NPR].) Two months later, RFK himself was assassinated in Los Angeles.


“To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”

Remarks by Robert F. Kennedy on the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

. . . 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: “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 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.



Early morning, April four,

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They cannot take your pride

In the name of love . . .

—U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)


Photograph by Dan Weiner: Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.


See also “There Is a Creative Force in This Universe” (1/16/12) on MLK’s work with the Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his death.