Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy (1925–1968), also referred to by his initials RFK, was an American politician, a Democratic senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Kennedy family, he was a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and acted as one of his advisors during his presidency. From 1961 to 1964, he was the U.S. Attorney General.
Following his brother John’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Kennedy continued to serve as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson for nine months. In September 1964, Kennedy resigned to seek the U.S. Senate seat from New York, which he won in November. Within a few years, he publicly split with Johnson over the Vietnam War.
In March 1968, Kennedy began a campaign for the presidency and was a front-running candidate of the Democratic Party. In the California presidential primary on June 4, Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. Following a brief victory speech delivered just past midnight on June 5 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Mortally wounded, he survived for nearly 26 hours, dying early in the morning of June 6.
In April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy received the news that Dr. King had been shot as Kennedy boarded a plane for a campaign rally in one of Indianapolis’ Black neighborhoods. When he landed in Indiana a reporter came onto the plane and told him King was dead. RFK, “seemed to shrink back, as though struck physically.”
The mayor, the police chief, and some of his own aides advised RFK to cancel the event, arguing that it would be suicidal for him to appear in the ‘ghetto.’ The Indianapolis police refused to escort him. However, with cities across the US already erupting, one police inspector felt the event should go on, and told one of RFK’s aides, “I sure hope he goes. If he doesn’t, there’ll be hell to pay. He’s the only one who can do it.”
Most in the crowd had been waiting outside for several hours & many had not yet heard the news. It would fall to Kennedy to inform them. Light rain fell as he climbed onto a flatbed truck. A television reporter described him as “hunched in his black overcoat, his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish.”
As Kennedy approached the microphone he asked one of the organizers, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?”
“To some extent,” replied the man. “We have left that up to you, if you feel like you can handle it.”
For nearly seven minutes, holding a piece of paper but looking at the audience, Kennedy delivered an extemporaneous eulogy. During the remarks he shocked his close associates by speaking publicly of something he usually never mentioned, even in private—his brother’s assassination.
Rep. John Lewis called RFK’s nod to his fallen brother “an incredibly powerful and connective and emotionally honest gesture.”
This speech is ranked #8 in The Telegraph Top 25 political speeches of all time
Statement on assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968
Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…
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, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight [crying] in Memphis, Tennessee.
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.
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.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to 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 these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “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 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. [applause & whistles]
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’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. 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. [applause]
Let us 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. [applause]
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, because he had advocated American support for Israel. Kennedy died the following day.
In 1994, the City of Indianapolis erected the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Robert Kennedy’s honor near the space made famous by his speech from the back of a pickup truck the night King died. The monument in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park depicts a sculpture of RFK reaching out from a large metal slab to a sculpture of King, who is part of a similar slab. This is meant to symbolize their attempts in life to bridge the gaps between the races – an attempt that united them even in death. A state historical marker has also been placed at the site.
A nephew of King and Indiana U.S. Congresswoman Julia Carson presided over the event; both made speeches from the back of a pickup truck in similar fashion to RFK’s speech.