INDIANA — 1968 — It was a short flight to Indianapolis, but somewhere above the tabletop cornfields, everything changed. Speaking to students in Muncie, Robert Kennedy had said, “the vast majority of white people have good intentions toward minorities.” Then on the plane he heard about Martin Luther King. By the time he arrived in Indianapolis, King was dead. “Oh God,” Kennedy said, hands buried in his face. “When is this violence going to stop?” Then he headed for his next speech.

He had been warned — inner-city Indianapolis was a powder keg. “I don’t want him to do this,” the mayor said. “Get word to him, tell him not to do it! Kennedy left his wife at a hotel. The police escort peeled off at the edge of the neighborhood. When Kennedy approached a cheering crowd, he asked, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” Most did not.

By 1968, Robert Kennedy was a changed man. Before his brother’s assassination, he was often regarded as a “son of a bitch.” Tough, unforgiving, he had driven himself and everyone around him. Managing his brother’s 1960 campaign, he told a reporter, “I’m not running a popularity contest. It doesn’t matter if they like me or not. Jack can be nice to them. Somebody has to be able to say ‘no’.”

As Attorney General, Kennedy was equally blunt, equally driven. He dragged his heels on Civil Rights, considering the marches and violence an embarrassment to the nation. Only when prodded and faced with enforcing the law did he act, desegregating bus stations, getting prisoners released, upholding the Constitution. But then. . .

The world saw him that weekend leading the grieving widow before the flag-draped casket. The world did not see him again for months. Plunged into despair, Robert Kennedy asked timeless questions about suffering and injustice. He found few answers until the grieving widow handed him a book of Greek mythology.

Kennedy studied the myths, then the epic tragedies. He read and re-read, memorized lines, touched bottom and came away kinder, deeper. Greek wisdom, historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “opened up for him a world of suffering and exaltation — a world in which man’s destiny was to set himself against the gods and, even while knowing the futility of the question, to press on to meet his tragic fate.”

Kennedy entered the 1968 campaign in mid-March. His first primary was Indiana. He flew to Muncie on April 4, speaking to students even as Martin Luther King stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Now, hours later, Kennedy approached the cheering crowd in Indianapolis. He climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck. With no help from speechwriters, he had jotted a few notes.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you. Could you lower those signs, please? I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news 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 was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

Gasps and wails tore through the crowd. Kennedy waited.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s 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 evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. . . “

Citing King’s work, Kennedy cautioned against revenge. “We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.” Then, his voice flattening until he seemed in a trance, he recited lines that had helped him face his own tragedy. His favorite poet, he said, was Aeschylus. “And he once 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.

The crowd listened quietly. “He seemed to speak to us as human beings and not as people in the ghetto,” one woman recalled. “His sincerity just came through loud and clear. He talked about his brother been killed and it was very. . . heartfelt. It gave you something to think about and propel yourself as you drove home later. It was so meaningful to me, because how many people would come to the ghetto and quote poetry?”

His voice shaking, Kennedy went on:

“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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.”

He closed by repeating what he had said in Muncie — “the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together.” The audience applauded. Then he urged the crowd to “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. Thank you very much.”

There were riots all over America that night, but not in Indianapolis.



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