On the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy had to give a speech. In a world before blogs, Kennedy was in the awkward, yet history-making position of having to break news to his audience; this was the first the Indiana crowd had heard of King’s death. The speech is exceptional, even when considered within the canon of Kennedy’s often classic, and often literary, brilliance.
You can see the video here. What was extraordinary was how frankly, and calmly, Kennedy addressed the anger and hate that underlies irrational acts. He told what had happened, and he went right into calm. He was not angry, or even emotional. The audience followed this lead. RFK was in a position to empathize. In one of the most memorable moments in the speech, he connects to his audience by reminding them that his brother was also killed—“by a white man.” Implicit in this is another irrationality—the irrationality of generalizations, whether about race, or religion, or any other pat demographic stat. He urged understanding.
And then he referenced something—some words—that had helped him. Kennedy said:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, “And even 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 and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice to those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
We are not hearing a lot about Aeschylus today. Aeschylus knew tragedy. “Wisdom through the awful grace of God” is an amazing line, one that not only subverts an idea, but also an emotion. Kennedy only spoke briefly, but by the end of his talk the crowd was cheering. Also famously, Indianapolis was peaceful that night, while all around the country there were fires in the streets.
Kennedy pointed out that moments like these are times for us to look inward and ask “what kind of nation we are.” This is one of those moments. We will watch how many in positions of power and visibility adopt a position of peace.