On the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, a stunned Sen. Robert Kennedy cleared just about every event off his calendar, save one. He had previously accepted an invitation to speak at The City Club of Cleveland, one of America’s premiere public forums. Kennedy kept that commitment. He had something vital to say in Cleveland that day in response to America’s condition in 1968.
The night before, Kennedy had delivered an passionate extemporaneous speech in Indianapolis. He broke the news about Dr. King’s murder to the crowd that night. Then he appealed for peace and a non-violent reaction to King’s assassination. “What we need in the United States 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,” he said.
Although he was running for President, Kennedy was not campaigning. “Could you lower those signs please?” he asked the crowd in Indianapolis, just before delivering the tragic news about Dr. King. He also put off any campaign address in Cleveland also, despite throngs of people who showed up at his hotel hoping to hear him say a few words.
At the City Club, before thousands at the Sheraton Cleveland Hotel and many more via a national broadcast, Kennedy expounded upon his plea for an end to violence in America.
In a 2017 essay, Professor Jeff Drury and Wabash College student Cole A. Crouch described Kennedy’s speeches in both cities on successive days as prophetic. Below is a one-paragraph excerpt from their writing.
In Cleveland, he cautioned, “we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike.” Kennedy said that violence was not only unwarranted and unwanted but also dehumanizing: “whenever any American’s life is taken . . . in an attack of violence or in response to violence . . . then the whole nation is degraded.” Kennedy then went on to denounce any kind of violence, by any person, as a sin.
Here is a link to the Plain Dealer’s coverage of the speech. Note that the eyes of the nation were fully attentive to Dr. King’s life, his death, and the aftermath.
Here is a brief video segment of the speech.
And here from the Voice of Democracy Project is a link to both speeches, as well as a lesson plan for educators and a link to the paper which Jeffrey Drury and Crouch wrote:
Tragically, just two months after speaking in Cleveland, Robert Kennedy’s life was cut short in an act of violence in Los Angeles.
This writer presents all this for you with a couple of simple observations: Fifty years after Dr. King, our nation has made some progress in eliminating racial divisiveness in our land. But some of the injustices which Bobby Kennedy spoke of on April 5, 1968, continue on April 5, 2018.
But we have so horribly degraded and devalued human life, as Kennedy correctly observed in Cleveland, that acts of violence continue to be tolerated, thus further dehumanizing our society and our people.