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

“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

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On the day after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke [1] 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 [2] (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 [3] for a YouTube clip with audio of the speech (and more).*

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“Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation”

Remarks [1] 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.

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* Click here [3] 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 [4].

For more about extremism and violence in America, see our previous posts “Rev. King and Gun Violence: ‘Study War No More [5]” (1/17/11) and “ ‘Kill the Bill’ vs. ‘Stop the War’: A Tale of Two Protests [6]” (4/11/10).

For more on the domestic firearms industry, see Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine [7].

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

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