History can be cruel. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was unquestionably America’s most prominent prophet and practitioner of nonviolence, was followed by riots, arson and looting in 168 American cities and towns. The numbers are staggering: 2,600 fires were set; 21,700 people were injured; 2,600 were arrested; 39 were killed. One city that was spared all that in the days following King’s murder was Indianapolis.
Credit for that must be given to the citizens of Indiana’s capital city and to its leaders, both black and white, and also to a remarkable American political leader, who, on that April night in 1968, delivered the news of King’s death to an Indianapolis rally of mostly African Americans.
Here, speaking with neither prepared text nor teleprompter, is what this white American presidential candidate said that terrible evening: “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. Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”
Then sensitive to those present who were hearing from him the tragic news, this American politician continued: “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.” Thus, for the first time since that awful day in Dallas some four and a half years earlier, Sen. Robert Kennedy referred publicly to the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
“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.” Kennedy then spoke directly to those within the sound of his voice: “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.”
Full disclosure: I worked for Robert Kennedy in that 1968 campaign, which would end just two months after King’s assassination, once again from an assassin’s bullets in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. Robert Kennedy was not a perfect public servant. Like all of us, he was fallible and flawed. But in Indianapolis on that April night, Robert Kennedy, with empathy earned in his own and the nation’s earlier tragedy and with simple eloquence, gave us the timeless example of what true political leadership can be. We could use some more right now.