Robert F. Kennedy, after addressing a crowd in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. (John R. Fulton Jr., AP)

Three Martyrs, a Truck Bed, and the Awful Grace of God

Senator Robert F. Kennedy did not discuss his brother’s assassination.

Robert had been his brother’s protector, attack dog, and confidant, and in the wake of that terrible loss, his depression ran so deep that Senator Ted Kennedy later noted the family came close to a “tragedy within a tragedy.”

Even in private, Kennedy referred only to “the events of November 1963.”

But on the night of April 4, 1968, in the springtime of billy clubs and bombings, when American political life seemed as volatile externally as Kennedy felt internally, he broke his silence.

In the heart of one of Indianapolis’ poorest neighborhoods, Black veterans, radicals, school children, and grandparents alike had gathered, with signs held high, for what was meant to be a campaign rally in support of the white, New-England prep-schooled presidential candidate.

Perhaps with another candidate, the dichotomies between the man and the audience would have seemed starker, but for the Kennedy campaign, this was not an unusual crowd. Kennedy had a remarkable capacity to connect with audiences of all backgrounds — and on this night in Indianapolis, that power met the moment and the forces of history.

Wearing his slain brother’s overcoat and a look of anguish, Kennedy climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck.

The crowd cheered with excitement, but Kennedy’s mood was not lifted.

“I have some very sad news for all of you… and I think for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world,” Kennedy began, “and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

Cries of horror rang out. Most in the audience had not known — could not have known, in those days long before breaking news alerts and Twitter timelines.

The weeping eyes and horror-stricken faces were visible signs, but they could not totally capture the significance and intensity of this loss. The gathered crowd, and the country as a whole, had lost nothing less than a prophet.

Robert F. Kennedy informs onlookers of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

The crowd’s wounds were deep, and words alone could not end the pain, much less those spoken by a white man who had only recently come to champion the cause of racial justice. But Kennedy knew this. And he knew no amount of empathy could comprehend the uniqueness of the agony felt by each individual. So, Kennedy didn’t try to make it better.

Instead, stuttering and stumbling, Kennedy spoke not from a teleprompter, but from his heart. His words embodied the ecclesiastical adage, “the best sermons are those delivered to oneself.”

“For those of you who are Black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people,” Kennedy stammered, “I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my own family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

From this unusual pulpit, through his words about King, Kennedy was processing his own grief over the loss of his brother. He knew all too well the pain of being left behind to confront the dark when a great light is extinguished. He was still living it. And he was giving the speech he needed to hear.

Kennedy shared with the audience a verse by Aeschylus that had helped him find some comfort in his own profound despair:

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.

“The awful grace of God” had delivered Kennedy to the mission he had come to embrace: continuing his brother’s legacy. Now, he was helping the audience recognize that it was their turn to live those values for which King had died, however painfully won that mission was.

Classical speechwriting wisdom calls us to tailor our remarks to our audience, and certainly, that can be important. But, in moments of great pain or tragedy, it’s hard not to come off trite or overly optimistic. There are times when the audience does not need your similes and metaphors. They won’t be wowed by a beautiful turn of phrase. They want to know you mean what you say — and the only way to deliver that, is to actually mean what you say.

Each of us has an intuitive sense for where that line is, and Kennedy’s speech shows us that, even if the words are difficult or unvarnished, what a speaker needs to hear is probably what the audience needs to hear too. When Kennedy was searching for a way to go on, he had found purpose in Aeschylus’ words, and in this time of despondence, he knew the audience would too.

The “Landmark for Peace” memorial in Indianapolis, located in the park where Robert F. Kennedy spoke on the night of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. (Kennedy King Memorial Initiative)

King, JFK, and RFK are irrevocably connected, not just by the circumstances of their deaths, but by the actions of their lives; the way they united us around our common humanity and challenged us to meet the promise of our better angels.

On that cold April night, Kennedy pled for that cause to live on — and for that night, it did. In the hours to follow Kennedy’s perceptive words, King’s declaration that riots are the “language of the unheard,” proved especially prescient. While rioting broke out in most major cities across the country, there was to be no riot in Indianapolis that night. The people of Indianapolis felt heard — and they mourned in peace.

— Alexandra Goetz (WWW Intern)

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Listen to Robert F. Kennedy’s entire speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. here.

Follow Alexandra Goetz and West Wing Writers on Twitter.

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West Wing Writers

West Wing Writers

A progressive communications-strategy firm led by former Clinton, Obama, and Biden Administration speechwriters.

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