This week–April 4th to be exact–is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Over at Smithsonian.com, historian Alice George reflects on Robert Kennedy’s announcement of King’s death. Here is a taste of her piece:
Kennedy knew King’s death would generate bitterness and calls for vengeance: “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,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”
After the initial shock, the audience listened silently except for two moments when they cheered RFK’s peace-loving message.
“It’s a very un-speech speech,” says Harry Rubenstein, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “When you watch Kennedy giving the news of King’s assassination you see him carefully and hesitantly stringing his ideas together. Ultimately, what makes the speech so powerful is his ability to share the loss of his own brother to an assassin, as he pleas with his audience not to turn to violence and hate.” Rubenstein concludes.
“It’s the first time he talks publicly about his brother’s death and that he has suffered the angst and anguish of losing someone so important to him, and they were all suffering together . . . . everyone on the stage as well as in the crowd. And there was a real vulnerability in that,” adds curator Aaron Bryant from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“It was such a risky thing for him to do as well because he was confronting a crowd that was ready to retaliate for the death of Martin Luther King, but he was ready to confront any retaliation or anger that people might have felt over King’s death. That took a certain amount of courage and spiritual power and groundedness,” says Bryant.
Read the entire piece here.