Often times, some of the most impactful moments are not planned, nor do they come in the best of tidings. This is no exception for Robert Kennedy’s words on the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior. The speech, which was largely improvised moments before it was given, was initially intended to be a routine stop for Kennedy’s presidential campaign trail. “Then, a rumor began circulating that someone had tried to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr., but that he had survived” (Evans). However, to the predominantly African American group gathered in Indianapolis, the news of King’s death was nothing but a rumor. “Kennedy was very late, which was not unusual for political rallies, and people started to get restless” (Evans). Kennedy recognized the importance King held in the community and thought it was hardly a time for self endorsement. Robert Kennedy’s words on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was extremely influential because of its emotional effect on the audience, its connection to the civil rights movement, and its ability to connect people.
One major reason Robert Kennedy’s words on Martin Luther King’s death was so influential was the emotional impact it had on its audience. That night over one hundred riots broke out across America. In Washington DC, riots became extreme. Over a dozen people died, and the destruction caused by rioters remained in DC well into the 1970s. Martin Luther King Junior had been a symbol of hope throughout the Civil Rights movement. When that symbol was killed, especially at the hands of a white man, many people viewed this as the end of justice. The racial divide that MLK had fought so tirelessly to destroy was reignited in one night. That night in Indianapolis, there was no rioting. The Hoosier crowd listened intently to Kennedy’s words, holding on to what he said. The silence was intimidating; nobody knew what to expect. “They pleaded with Kennedy not to go,” said Rosenwald, speaking of all the campaign aids and family members included on Robert’s trail. They considered it too dangerous, the crowd would not take well to this news given by a white man. Residents near the rally site had seen angry men carrying weapons and cans of gas. The attendees went home that night with King’s mission in mind. Kennedy’s ability to galvanize the people into compassion, rather than anger. Robert Kennedy had convinced them that the way to honor MLK was not to fight for him, but rather carry on his philosophy of peaceful protest in the pursuit of change.
Another reason why Robert Kennedy’s Martin Luther King speech was so influential was the connection it holds to the civil rights movement. At the time it was given, the nation was working hard to pass the civil divides that separated Americans. Martin Luther King Junior was a major leader in the civil rights movement. Before King came around, the progression of civil rights was “turbulent, and the year before had been a violent one” (Stack). King preached the art of peaceful protest and encouraged others to bridge the gap rather than separate others. These ideas were so important; as peaceful protest made it possible to finally get the equal rights they were fighting for. However, the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior held back what he was fighting to accomplish. King was killed by James Earl Ray, a notorious racist who showed great disgust toward civil rights. This was so symbolic for individuals striving for equal rights; it showed the close-minded people they were trying to defeat were biting back. Ray killed the one man that those seeking change looked up to more than anyone. Robert Kennedy, however, reminded the audience in Indianapolis that King would not have wanted them to let this divide them. Kennedy said to carry on his legacy by praying for our country, and the people went home as mourners rather than rioters.
One last reason why it was so inspirational was its ability to connect people.
It has been said many times that Robert Kennedy was the only white person who could have given that speech. “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” (Rosenwald). He understood what this meant to others. His sympathy for others stemmed from the assassination of his brother, John F. Kennedy, only a few years earlier. In the speech, Kennedy says, “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.” By the time of this speech, it was widely accepted that John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. Oswald was similar to James Ray, in the sense that they both held a deep hatred for the liberal ideas John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were attempting to enact. Robert’s words considering the death of his brother resonated deeply with the audience, as it was “…addressed, for the first time in public” (“Robert Francis Kennedy”). Robert Kennedy had a level of understanding for African American people that many people, even his brother, did not have at the time. “He was the only white man who had the credibility and the courage to go into the black community and talk about Martin Luther King and acknowledge what he represented and mourn for him” (Stack). He was understanding to all people. The speech resonated with that audience to the point where they did not blame one group of people for what happened. Kennedy encouraged them to not turn on one another at this time, even though it would be easy to put blame on others. He said that they needed to pray for each other, and look out for each other together as a country.
Robert Kennedy’s words on the death of Martin Luther King Junior had an undeniable importance in history due to the fact it connected people, its historical significance, and its impact on the audience. Robert Kennedy helped connect the country at a time when it would have been so easy to seclude others. Robert Kennedy was one of the only people that could have done this, and this this proves its significance to history.
- Evans, Mary. “I Was There For Robert Kennedy’s Electrifying Speech about MLK’s Murder.” History, AUG 31, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/robert-f-kennedy-speech-martin-luther-king-assassination-1968
- Ollhoff, Jim. Civil Rights Movement. Abdo & Daughters, 2011. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,geo,url,ip&geocustid=s8475741&db=nlebk&AN=393568&site=eds-live&scope=site.
- “Robert Francis Kennedy.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, May 2019, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,geo,url,ip&geocustid=s8475741&db=khh&AN=134523657&site=eds-live&scope=site.
- Rosenwald, Michael S. “‘That stain of bloodshed’: After King’s assassination, RFK calmed an angry crowd with an unforgettable speech.” The Washington Post, April 4, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/04/03/that-stain-of-bloodshed-after-kings-assassination-rfk-calmed-an-angry-crowd-with-an-unforgettable-speech/
- Stack, Liam. “When Robert F. Kennedy Told an Indianapolis Crowd of King’s Assassination.” The New York Times, April 4, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/us/king-rfk-speech.html