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‘That stain of bloodshed’: After King’s assassination, RFK calmed an angry crowd with an unforgettable speech

Robert F. Kennedy gave what turned out to be an iconic speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. (Video: Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights)

As darkness took hold on April 4, 1968, newly declared presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy stepped in front of a microphone atop a flatbed truck in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Looking out onto the crowd, Kennedy turned and quietly asked a city official, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?”

The civil rights leader had been shot a few hours earlier, though the news that he was dead hadn’t reached everyone yet.

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“We’ve left it up to you,” the official said.

What unfolded during the next six minutes, according to historians and Kennedy biographers, is one of the most compelling and overlooked speeches in U.S. political history — the brother of an assassinated president announcing another devastating assassination two months before he’d be killed, too.

“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,” the 42-year-old senator said in his thick Boston accent, “and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? His family believes James Earl Ray was framed.

There were audible gasps.

Kennedy, wearing his brother’s overcoat and speaking without notes, quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus — “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart …” — and to the astonishment of his aides, the audience and even his own family, the senator referenced his brother’s murder for the first time.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

That night, amid one of the most chaotic years in American history, the country burned. Riots broke out in more than 100 cities, including Washington, where at least a dozen people died.

“I was upset, to put it mildly,” said Abie Washington, then 26 and just out of the Navy, who stood that evening in the crowd listening to Kennedy. “I was pissed. Something needed to be done and I wanted to do it.”

But as Kennedy kept speaking, something came over him.

“My level of emotion went from one extreme to another,” Washington said. “He had empathy. He knew what it felt like. Why create more violence?”

There was no rioting in Indianapolis.

‘Burn the city down’

They pleaded with Kennedy not to go — campaign aides, the police chief, his wife Ethel.

It was too dangerous, they said. Residents near the rally site had seen angry men carrying weapons and cans of gas.

“The black people in this neighborhood,” one resident told historian Thurston Clarke, “were going to burn the city down.”

RFK’s 1968 presidential bid sparked hope, then despair

Kennedy, who won a Senate seat from New York after serving as his brother’s attorney general, had jumped into the presidential race on March 16, 1968. He did not have a particularly close relationship with King, having once authorized wiretapping of his phones at the request of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

But Kennedy had come to greatly respect King, his campaign echoing the concerns of the civil rights leader for the poor and disenfranchised.

Kennedy learned that King had been shot as he boarded a plane for Indianapolis. When it landed, a reporter told Kennedy that King was dead.

“Kennedy’s face went blank and he jerked his head backward, as if the bullet struck him, too,” Clarke wrote in “The Last Campaign,” an account of Kennedy’s 82-day run for president. “Then he covered his face with his hands and murmured, ‘Oh God, when is this violence going to stop?’ ”

One of Kennedy’s campaign staffers was John Lewis, who had already risked his life to defy segregation alongside King and would later become a congressman from Georgia. Lewis urged Kennedy not to cancel the speech.

“I thought Bobby Kennedy coming would have a cooling impact on the audience,” Lewis said in an interview. “He appealed to the hearts and the minds and souls of the people there — black and white.”

On the car ride over, Kennedy was nearly silent, staring out the window and undoubtedly, his aides said later, thinking about his brother.

Arriving at the park, he was greeted with jeers.

“What are you doing here, whitey?” someone shouted.

And then Kennedy began speaking.

“He spoke in a prayerful, mournful fashion,” Lewis said.

King’s death, Kennedy said, left the black community with a choice about how to respond, whether to seek revenge.

“We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization … black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another,” Kennedy said. “Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”

“What we need in the United States,” he continued, “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.”

They were Kentucky’s poorest, most desperate people. And he was a Kennedy with an entourage.

A sense of grace washed over the crowd.

Two Purdue University speech professors later interviewed audience members and published a paper examining the shift in the crowd. One man told the professors that Kennedy had “tears in his eyes, I saw it, he felt it man, he cried.”

But how, the professors asked, could they relate to a white rich man?

“We black people remember his brother,” one person interviewed said. “We know what trouble is, we had all kinds of it.”

Another man said, “The cat tell the truth like it is.”

The threat of violence subsided. Everyone went home.

The ‘music of politics’

In 2006, political writer Joe Klein published “Politics Lost,” a book examining how politicians had become “more interested in keeping power than in doing what’s right for America.” He began with Kennedy’s speech that night in April 1968.

“Kennedy’s words,” Klein wrote, “stand as a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose — to heal, to educate, to lead.” He argued that consultants and pollsters have “robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.”

However inspiring it was, Kennedy’s speech remains largely unknown among ordinary Americans. But that might be changing.

“A Ripple of Hope,” a 2008 public television documentary about the speech, has become available on Amazon’s streaming video service and is reappearing on TV, thanks to the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

And the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative, a nonprofit group in Indianapolis, recently raised more than $100,000 for photos, a plaque and other educational material to be displayed at the park — now named for Martin Luther King Jr. — where Kennedy made his speech. Last month, Congress passed a measure to designate the park as a national commemorative site.

On Wednesday, local officials are expecting thousands of people to attend an event in the park to mark King’s death and Kennedy’s speech. Lewis is scheduled to speak.

Now 78, the congressman still sometimes tears up remembering Kennedy and that moment.

The night before King’s funeral in Atlanta, Kennedy told Lewis and his other staff members that they needed to rest, that “tomorrow we have to bury our leader.”

Kennedy walked behind the car carrying King’s casket through the city.

“He was probably the only white politician in America who could walk the streets of Atlanta, into the heart of the African American community, without any booing, without anyone saying anything bad about him,” Lewis said. “They were just so pleased to see him.”

Two months later,  Bobby Kennedy was celebrating his victory in the California presidential primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Shots were fired.

Suddenly, he was gone, too.

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