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.