Saturday, April 5, 2008


A lot of people dismiss the power of words, especially when it comes to leadership.

Just as a lot of people try to portray all politicians as alike.

But yesterday’s NPR tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., on the 40th anniversary of his assassination, included clips from Robert F. Kennedy’s speech to a predominantly African-American crowd in Indianapolis the night King was killed.

And if ever words, and leadership, made a difference, it was that night.

As historians and commentators pointed out later, neighborhoods in over a hundred cities in the U. S. A. were in flames that night. The understandable rage of “black Americans” over the slaying of King came out as rioting, looting, burning, destroying, often their own neighborhoods.

But Indianapolis was peaceful. And it was a city that had enormous racial problems. Just a few clear, but eloquent and heartfelt words prevented the kind of senseless violence and self-destructive rage that enveloped so many urban areas across America.

The lives and property spared, not just from physical harm, but from arrest and prison or homelessness was enormous, compared to the toll taken in other cities.

RFK was simple and direct. Letting the crowd know quickly that MLK had been shot and killed. The screams from the crowd are heartrending even now. He spoke of how their anger against white people might be justified by the reality that the evidence indicated white people were responsible for the murder.

But then he went on to say that what King stood for was peace, compassion and justice. And that he too, RFK, understood how others might feel, because he too lost “a family member” I think is the way he put it, and “a white man” was responsible for that.

The only film I’ve seen that’s available of the whole talk is from Italy and has bothersome Italian subtitles, but the power of what RFK did that night still comes through. Check it out for yourself.

RFK could have easily been shot himself, or attacked by an angry mob, after delivering such devastating news to that crowd under those circumstances. But he doesn’t seem frightened or even wary. He seems appropriately solemn and serious and deeply effected by what has happened.

God it makes me miss what might have been had he not been assassinated himself only two months later, the first victim, as many have since pointed out, of Islamist terrorism in America.

His response to his own death, or to 9/11 and other recent catastrophes, shaped by the changes brought about in his own intellect and spirit after the assassination of his brother, and of Martin Luther King Jr. and the turmoil and violence and other deaths of that tumultuous time, might have been equally reasonable, understanding, and directed toward the necessary compassion, peace and justice that became his goals.

To say that that’s all dreamy headed Liberalism, is to deny the results of those changes in him that led him that night to take such a courageous but compassionate stance and to change the lives of the people who heard his words.

Perhaps if his speech had been able to be transmitted into the homes of every American—as was Bush’s top-of-the-rubble, bullhorn, macho, revenge speech at ground zero after 9/11 was—maybe all of America’s cities would have remained peaceful that night, like Indianapolis did.

Obama hasn’t been tested as much as RFK was by the time of King’s assassination, or as much as King himself was even earlier, but he has been tested. By the circumstances of his origins, by the doubt and criticism and mudslinging of this campaign, and by the events of the past several years under this administration—as we all have—and he shows a lot of growth as a result, even just over the months of this campaign. And he certainly knows how to use the words, as clearly and as eloquently as RFK.

It feels like Obama is the fulfillment of the promise King spoke of the night before he was killed, in that speech where he swore that even if he didn’t make it to “the promised land” that he had seen from the mountaintop by the grace of God (an unstated reference to Moses, as well as a foreshadowing of his death), he knew that his people would.

We have a chance to fulfill that promise as well, by believing—as Obama at his best continues to move people to believe—that we can aim for those old ideals of peace and compassion and justice, despite the struggles that will not disappear, the problems and unexpected catastrophes.

With a leader like Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy—and, I believe, Barack Obama—there is the real possibility that justified rage can be turned to compassion, that justice can replace revenge, and peace replace violence.

It did that night in Indianapolis.


Jamie Rose said...

beautiful post lals.


harryn said...

i second that emotion - beautiful, inspiring, and timely ...
though i trust it'll happen, at this point its hard to believe that my outrage and contempt for the stupidity of 'our' leadership and its followers will change ...
always amazed by the hope that comes from words of compassion, conviction and vision ... obama's got it ...
i wonder if there's been any addendums to 'the healing poem' ...
hello to jamie ...

JIm said...

It is unlikely that the following quotes of Martin Luther King, would be embraced by Obama’s spiritual mentor of twenty years.

"I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

"An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind."

MLK seemed to accept abortion, since he received an award from Planned Parenthood. It is impossible to know whether he would have accepted the infanticide of babies who had survived abortion the way Obama did in Illinois. I doubt that Bobby with a housefull of kids and a Catholic upbring would have appoved of infanticide.

Bobby and Jack Kennedy used power in interesting and contrdictory ways. They failed to use it at the Bay of Pigs even though the anti-Castro forces had been encouraged. RFK authorized the FBI to wiretap MLK because of what were thought to be his close ties to the American Communist party. The Kennedys were very cautious advocates of civil rights since they were, justifiably, very concerned about losing the South for the Democrat party. Eisenhaurer was certainly more decisve when he used troops to enforce the law of the land in Little Rock. The Kennedys had no problem going after Hoffa and the Teamsters or confronting Steel companies with what they thought were inappropriate price rises. They challenged Khrushchev, belatedly after showing weakness at Vienna, which brought us with in a hairs breath of nuclear war. Jack and Bobby apparently were OK with the assassination of the Diem brothers of Vietnam. I remember watching Bobby, in between ski runs, on what I think was St. Patrick’s Day of 1968. He was announcing his run for the president after Eugene McCarthy had done the really courageous thing earlier by announcing his challenge to LBJ for president. I was certainly imbued with the Kennedy mystic at the time, but remember my dissatisfaction with Bobby’s attempting to steal McCarthy’s thunder.

To sum it up, I see very little of Martin Luther King in Obama or in his spiritual advisor. Whether or not you approve of the Kennedy’s use of power, there is little indication that Obama has the sand to make hard presidential decisions, since he has never been tested in any meaningful way.

Lally said...

As usual Jim, you miss the point. Gene McCarthy didn't stop any riots with his words or calming presence, though he did convert some young people who may have taken part in demonstrations against the war or for civil rights into getting "clean for Gene" and working for his campaign even though he stated, at the time, and afterward, that he didn't expect to win and wasn't running to win, but just to get kids from going "hippie" and "radical" and taking to the streets to try and change the government in ways other than just voting. Whereas RFK knew he could actually win and not only change the course of the Vietnam War, saving hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives and homes and families etc. from the death and destruction wrought by Nixon's and Kissinger's failed policies, let alone here at home from "race riots" and other destructive disruptions that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, changing the course of world history in a direction that I believe would have healed many of the wounds of slavery and segregation and racism, as well as those caused by what Ike named "the military-industrial complex" and perhaps prevented the rise of the kind of cynical, dirty tricks politics that blossomed and became a permanent fixture of elections as a result of Nixon's tenure..
As for MLK being spied on by J. Edgar Hoover it began under Eisenhower in the 1950s, not under JFK, and the point of my post was that people can change, me for instance, I found RFK too "liberal" and not "radical" enough for me at the time, but since have come to not just appreciate his intelligence and devotion to the ideals this country was founded on (at least in the language, if not in the deeds of the founding fathers), but to the reality that he learned from not just history but his own personal history and developed from the feisty little mob buster to the compassionate, gianty of a political figure whose path was based on spiritual truths than on political lies, the reverse of what the rightwing Republicans have brought into the world we have been living in ever since.
And if you didn't see that at the time and can't see that now about RFK, well old buddy, as I remember it, you thought Bob Dylan was a just a bad joke with a bad voice, and I suspect still do.

JIm said...

You are right about my lack of appreciation of Dylan. I remember going to see a Joan Baez concert in Asbury Park and she introduced a very unkempt Dylan who seemed to be a good poet but was a very poor singer for my tastes.

I can ony find reference to RFK wiretapping MLK. I can not find any reference to Eisenhower and wire tapping of MLK.
Bobby was a little late to the anti war party. Possibly he has doing penance for the Diem deaths.

The FBI and Martin Luther King
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On October 10, 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy committed what is widely viewed as one of the most ignominious acts in modern American history: he authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin wiretapping the telephones of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. ......