His flight to Memphis was delayed by a bomb threat against his plane that day on Friday, April 3, 1968. But Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was determined to speak in support of the strike of the city’s sanitation workers, who suffered under poor working conditions and wages. He received frequent death threats as the most prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, but King’s drive was unabated, fueled by God’s claim on his life to address racial inequality, and other injustice in the U.S. After observing that gains in civil rights, though, had not improved the material conditions of life for many African-Americans, Rev. King enlarged his focus to economic justice, with the goal of alleviating poverty for all people, regardless of race. His speech in Memphis was a part of this new endeavor, called the Poor People’s Campaign. Nonviolence remained a central tenet of this new campaign, as it had during the Civil Rights movement.
“I became deeply fascinated by (Mahatma Gandhi’s) campaigns of nonviolent resistance,” as King explained about his pilgrimage toward nonviolence. “The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. . . . This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.”
Rev. King arrived safely to Memphis to address the gathering at the Mason Temple. Speaking powerfully near the close of his now-prescient remarks, he referred to the earlier bomb threat and shared the concern voiced by others about what may happen to him, saying:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
As the sun began to set the next night, King stood on the second-floor balcony with colleagues outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. They discussed plans for another event later that evening. He said to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Then moments later, the air cracked with a deadly sound of a single .30-06 bullet, which ripped through King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries in the process, before lodging in his shoulder. The force of the shot ripped off King’s necktie. He fell violently backward onto the balcony, blood pooling on the floor. Within minutes he was dead.
Shock and distress over the news of King’s death sparked rioting in more than 100 cities around the country that night, powered by feelings that now only violent resistance to systemic racism could be effective. It set off one of the greatest waves of social unrest in the United States since the Civil War, with broken glass and broken lives littering streets consumed by fire.
But in my home state of Indiana, one large city stood alone. Shocked by the news like many others, that night the residents of Indianapolis choose to respond differently.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana for the Democratic Presidential nomination the day Martin Luther King was killed. Although Rev. King boldly criticized Robert Kennedy for his failure to investigate civil rights violations as Attorney General in the early 60s, over the intervening years they developed admiration for each other and shared a common vision for America. King wrote Kennedy in 1964 praising him for his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, writing: “Your able, courageous and effective work . . . has earned for you an even warmer spot in the hearts of freedom loving people the world over. I add to theirs, my sincere and heartfelt thanks.”
As Kennedy wrapped up his campaign stop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, he was informed that his colleague, Rev. King, had been shot. He boarded his departure flight with a heavy heart. When he arrived in Indianapolis he received the devastating news that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was now dead.
He skipped a planned stop at his campaign headquarters and drove straight to the site of the next planned rally, located in a poor, largely African-American section of the city. His staff and the local police feared for his safety and the possibility of a riot, but Kennedy insisted on continuing. During the short trip, Kennedy jotted some notes on a piece of paper.
By the time he arrived, the sun had disappeared, leaving the city blanketed in darkness. The air was crisp and chilly. Kennedy wore a black overcoat with the collar of his white shirt peering over the top, making it almost appear like the collar of a clergyman. He climbed on top of a flatbed truck set up as his speaking platform. Lights pierced the darkness, illuminating him and those who clustered around him, who were mostly white. He stared intently into the crowd of mostly African-Americans who were eager to hear their candidate. Signs waved and the night air was filled with the sounds of excitement and anticipation. Most had not heard of Rev. King’s death.
That evening Robert Kennedy spoke from his soul, guided down the pathway to peace with an unseen hand.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began. “I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world.”
His fingers involuntarily ran through his hair and flashbulbs popped. The crowd grew quiet as the somber tone of his comments became evident.
“… Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”
The audience gasped in disbelief, and erupted in screams. Kennedy paused as the reality settled over the crowd like a shroud. He glanced at his notes for the first and last time.
“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s 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 evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.”
The Senator spoke with purpose, resolve, and compassion as he clutched his unread notes firmly in his hands, occasionally gesturing with them into the night air.
“We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”
Kennedy’s voice was steady, masking the pain which he surely felt, as he gazed straight ahead into the eyes of his stunned listeners who stood in rapt attention.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also 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 get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.”
“My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:”
Here, Robert Kennedy paused, probing his memory for the words of comfort he sought. The crowd stood silently.
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.”
As he continued to cast his vision for America in this dire hour, his voice began to quiver, and sounded almost prayerful.
“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.”
A smattering of applause broke the silence, gradually building to a cheer as Kennedy’s words were absorbed into hearts and minds. He crumbled his notes in his right hand.
“So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s 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 that abide in our land.”
Cheers of support rang out once again as he concluded.
“And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
“Thank you very much.”
Kennedy, campaigning for Commander in Chief, transformed into Comforter in Chief, applying a healing balm to a hurting community. The crowd responded with more applause as he carefully picked his way down from the back of the truck, leaving behind the essence of his being.
In his wake, the people of Indianapolis responded – not in violence, but in peace. Although grieved and hurting like so many others around the country, from their pain, falling drop by drop upon the heart, came wisdom through the grace of God, shared by the lips of Robert Kennedy.