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Kerry Kennedy Headshot

Tucson, King and Kennedy

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Watching President Obama deliver his healing message to a nation in grief last week, I could not help but recall the words of Robert Kennedy on April 4, 1968.

Flying from Muncie to Indianapolis in the midst of his presidential bid, my father was informed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

Despite the warnings of danger by the mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, Robert Kennedy drove straight to the heart of the inner city to address a campaign rally organized by Freedom Rider, SNCC Chairman, and later, Member of Congress, John Lewis.

Arthur Schlesinger described the scene:

It was a cold, windy evening. People had been waiting in the street for an hour but were in a festive, political-rally mood. They had not heard about King. Kennedy climbed onto a flatbed truck in a parking lot under a stand of oak trees. The wind blew smoke and dust through the gleam of the spotlights. "He was up there," said Charles Quinn, a television correspondent, "hunched in his black overcoat, his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish." He said, "I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight." There was a terrible gasp from the crowd.

Robert Kennedy, speaking out of the somber silence of the ride from the airport, speaking out of aching memory, speaking out of the depth of heart and hope:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization -- black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to 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. 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.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

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 or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black...

We've had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Kerry Kennedy is the President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights