Friday, May 23, 2008

Robert Kennedy and 1968

Robert Kennedy, 1963

One of the most remembered events of 1968 is the Presidential candidacy of Robert Kennedy which ended with his assassination. (After I had drafted this, I see that there is some kind of flap today about Hillary Clinton referring to the fact that Kennedy was assassinated in June while he was still campaigning for the Democratic nomination. Neil mentioned this in the previous post but I didn't react to it so negatively. It may not have been ideal wording but she was clearly referring to the fact that he was killed on the night he won the California primary with the nomination still not resolved.)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. offers some important perspectives on the events of 1968 in his Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978). He describes the events immediately following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 of that year:

That night fury raged in the ghettos of America. ...

Violence, Kennedy said in Cleveland, "goes on and on. . . . Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by his assassin's bullet." Yet Americans seemed to be growing inured to violence. "We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire. ... We honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force." And there was not only the violence of the shot in the night. Slower but just as deadly, he said, was "the violence of institutions. ... This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger ... the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among men." So much at least was clear: "Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul."

There were riots in 110 cities; 39 people were killed, mostly black, more than 2500 injured; more than 75,000 National Guardsmen and federal troops in the streets. He flew back to Washington, a city of smoke and flame, under curfew, patrolled by troops. He walked through the black districts. "Burning wood and broken glass were all over the place," said Walter Fauntroy. "... The troops were on duty. A crowd gathered behind us, following Bobby Kennedy. The troops saw us coming at a distance, and they put on gas masks and got the guns at ready, waiting for this horde of blacks coming up the street. When they saw it was Bobby Kennedy, they took off their masks and let us through. They looked awfully relieved." (my emphasis)
"We honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force": that could be a capsule description of the foreign policy of the Cheney-Bush administration.

His statement, "No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by his assassin's bullet," was eloquent and hopeful. And it was a call to reduce violence. But, sadly, if it's true, it's often true in the long run, not in the immediate future. And, as John Maynard Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead.

Earlier that day, he had broken the news to a crowd in Indianapolis about King's murder. A short clip of that speech is often shown in retrospectives on the time. After the speech, Schlesinger writes:

John Lewis had scheduled a meeting between Kennedy and a group of black militants after the Indianapolis rally. They waited for him now, filled, Lewis recalled, with "hostility and bitterness." When Kennedy finally arrived, one said angrily that "establishment people" were all the same: "Our leader is dead tonight, and when we need you we can't find you." Kennedy responded: "Yes, you lost a friend, I lost a brother, I know how you feel. ... You talk about the Establishment. I have to laugh. Big business is trying to defeat me because they think I am a friend of the Negro." They talked on. Departing, the black leaders pledged their support. (my emphasis)
Things were different then. Can you imagine any major Presidential candidate today saying something like, "Big business is trying to defeat me because they think I am a friend of the Negro"? Even using a phrase like "big business" is considered more than a little suspect today. And to suggest that "big business" was motivated by racism, can you imagine how Timmy Russert or Chris Matthews would describe any politician today who would suggest such a thing?

His trip to Indianapolis itself was quite interesting in the way it was planned. This was of course before King was shot, because RFK wound up being in Indianapolis the same day of the shooting:

On April 4 Kennedy began the Indiana campaign. He was scheduled in the evening to speak in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto. Walter Sheridan and John Lewis had set up the meeting — John Lewis, the Freedom Rider, the SNCC chairman who had asked at the March on Washington [in 1964] which side the federal government was on but who had "started identifying" with Kennedy in later years as "the only political leader" addressing the "real issues of the United States" and who had offered his services as soon as Kennedy announced. They had decided, Sheridan recalled, to put Kennedy "not only into the black community, but into the worst section of the black community." The Indianapolis mayor thought it dangerous; but, said Sheridan, "we had no real fears that there was going to be any problem."
As Schlesinger relates, in the evening when the rally began, the crowd hadn't heard about King's murder. Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck:

He said, "I have [some very sad news for you, [and I think sad news] 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 [was] killed tonight [in Memphis, Tennessee]." There was a terrible gasp from the crowd.
The full text of the brief speech Kennedy proceeded to deliver is available online with a recording as Robert F. Kennedy On the Death of Martin Luther King, The History Place.

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