“’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 from 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, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.” Robert F. Kennedy, Indianapolis, Indiana, eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr.
I thought of you today as I grappled with memories of 1968.
Today is the 49th anniversary of the passing of Bobby Kennedy. He, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., understood change better than almost anyone. The last two years of his life were a personal transformation; he knew the tiniest thing done could ripple into huge changes in history.
Before he comes out to address his own audience awaiting his political speech, he asks, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” Though his speech was in his hands, he never gave his planned speech that evening. He took himself completely out of the moment.
In all the planned speeches Robert Kennedy ever made, his best and perhaps most remembered speech was this five-minute, unplanned, extemporaneous eulogy he made to his own audience announcing King’s death. It was heartfelt and remarkable, humbling himself to this other great leader, and surrendering himself to the uplifting message of love and unity for the country, and connecting to the everyman he truly was.
1968 Timeline through assassination of Robert Kennedy
January 23 – USS Pueblo, US Navy intelligence gathering vessel captured by North Korean patrol boats. Its 83-member crew was not released until December 22.
January 31 – North Vietnamese launched Tet Offensive, carried on for weeks. This was the major turning point in American attitude toward the war.
February 2 – Richard Nixon declared his candidacy for President of the United States.
February 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers sermon at Atlanta’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church, presciently speaking of his own death:
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace… for righteousness.”
March 16 – Senator Robert Kennedy (and former Atty General, brother of President John F. Kennedy) announces he will enter the 1968 presidential race.
March 16 – US ground troops from Charlie Company wage a three-hour rampage through May Lai (pr: Me Lie) killing more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, infants to elderly. Three courageous American pilots finally intervene, positioning their helicopter between the troops and fleeing Vietnamese, carrying a handful of wounded to safety. This massacre would not be public knowledge for over a year.
April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated with one round from a 30.06 rifle. Robert Kennedy, hearing of King’s murder, pleads with his audience as he is about to give a speech, in an extemporaneous eulogy, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
April 11 – US Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford calls for an additional 24,500 military reserves to action and a new troop ceiling of 549,500 American soldiers in Vietnam. The total number of American troops “in country” will peak at over 541,000 in August.
April 23 – Students rally against the Vietnam War at Columbia University, occupying five buildings, culminating seven days later when police storm the buildings, violently removing students and supporters at the administration’s request.
May 6 – The US and North Vietnamese agree to begin peace talks in Paris (May 10)
May 11 – Ralph Abernathy, MLK Jr.’s successor, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are granted a permit to erect an encampment on the Washington, D.C. Mall. After 45 days, Resurrection City is raided by police, 124 occupants are arrested and the encampment is demolished.
June 4 – Robert Kennedy has just won the California Primary; he has just addressed a large crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. He expresses confidence his campaign will go on to unite the many divisive factions stressing the country. From a still applauding crowd, he turns to leave the stage.
June 5 – At 12:13AM Kennedy is shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24 year old Jordanian busboy working at the Ambassador. Sirhan shot Kennedy three times with a .22 caliber Iver-Johnson. The motive for the shooting is apparently anger at several pro-Isreali speeches Kennedy had made during the campaign. The forty-two year old Kennedy is rushed to the hospital with a severe head injury; he is accompanied by his wife, Ethel.
June 6 – Robert F. Kennedy is pronounced dead at 1:44 am at Good Samaritan Hospital. With him were his wife Ethel, sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy, and his sisters Pat Kennedy Lawford and Jean Kennedy Smith.
Today, for some reason, feels like 1968. We are facing the same hatred, the same division, the same worries – but more so. And the only thing I can do is remember, and pray.
Make every effort to preserve the unity the Spirit has already created, with peace binding you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were all called to pursue one hope. There is one Lord Jesus, one living faith, one ceremonial washing through baptism, and one God—the Father over all who is above all, through all, and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)