Ferguson Needed a Robert F. Kennedy, Not a George S. Patton

RFK knew how to inspire people. It wasn't a cheap, button-pushing inspiration, but the kind that grew out of his direct awareness of what people had experienced and where they were coming from. As a prosecutor, I often look to his words for guidance.
08/26/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

All across the world, we watched this week as police deployed armored vehicles, snipers and officers in military combat gear against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Hasn't history repeatedly shown us that an overzealous showing of force against those who have experienced genuine and lasting sociocultural marginalization just ratchets up the levels of violence?

On April 4, 1968, the sound of gunfire shattered the senses and a body slammed against the second-floor balcony of a Memphis motel. Shockwaves of panicked emotion reverberated throughout the surrounding area and then quickly engulfed the entire world. Just hours later, Senator Robert F. "Bobby" Francis Kennedy (RFK) landed in Indianapolis, Indiana, to lead a political rally in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. He'd been onboard the plane when he was first told of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The crowd of mostly African Americans he was to address had not yet heard about King's murder, and RFK felt it was his duty to deliver the tragic news rather than a rah-rah campaign speech. Fearful of violent reactions, RFK's advisers attempted to dissuade him from speaking. The night was thick with ominous predictions, and even the police chief warned the junior senator from New York that he could not guarantee his safety.

King had become the single most transformative figure in the civil rights movement, and RFK understood that what the nation needed most was a call to healing and reconciliation. RFK stepped up to the microphone, and as he began to report what had happened to King, a giant wave of human torment rolled toward him; many in the inner-city gathering wailed and gasped, unrestrained in their shock and grief.

RFK continued with an impassioned yet humble, measured tone that viscerally captured the nature of the tragedy:

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. 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. 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 that abide in our land.

RFK pressed on:

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 toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

The climax of his brief, four-minute speech was RFK's sharing of a quote he had memorized from his favorite poet, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: "In our sleep, pain which we 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." Aeschylus was saying that no matter the nature of our particular pain, that pain couldn't help succumbing to the power of the heart. I can think of no finer words to express how humankind's suffering can summon forth its higher sense of nobleness.

Riots erupted across the United States, and more than 100 cities became unwilling hosts to angry mobs: 39 people were killed and another 2,500 injured. But beneath the charged Indianapolis skies, Bobby RFK had summoned heartfelt words to cool the temper of the crowd. His conviction to lead in a way that King himself would have wanted had also saved lives. That night, the band of believers left with a heavy cloud over their spirits; yet, in contrast to almost every major city in America, there were no riots in Indianapolis.

More than any politician I can think of, RFK knew how to inspire people. It wasn't a cheap, button-pushing inspiration, but the kind that grew out of his direct awareness of what people had experienced and where they were coming from. RFK, who was killed in 1968, served as a prosecutor in his career, including acting as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee and as United States Attorney General, where he pushed for civil rights even more aggressively than his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

As a prosecutor, I often look to his words for guidance. As Ferguson protestors gather more than 70,000 signatures to have St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch removed from the case, it would be helpful if Mr. McCullough took the time to read RFK's words. Those words are hauntingly and demoralizingly, still so befitting. The bottom line is that Ferguson needed a Robert F. Kennedy, not a George S. Patton.