Of Kennedys and Kings: Remembering 1968

* On the 40th anniversary of the MLK Assassination last year, our founding editor New Frontier wrote this remembrance of the tragic events which took place this week in 1968. We wanted to share it with you again today.

MLK and RFK

RFK and MLK

MARCH 31-APRIL 4, 1968 – A WEEK THAT CHANGED AMERICA

“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.”

 

– Aeschylus, as quoted by Robert Kennedy upon the death of MLK

Φ

40 years ago this week brought us to a critical turning point in the American experience.

By March of `68, with the peace movement rapidly growing and anti-war sentiment at its’ peak, it seemed that things might finally be turning around for the better. Robert F. Kennedy had just entered the presidential race opposing the war. There was a brewing sense of hope that a Kennedy presidency would be restored five years after the death of JFK.

Little did America suspect that the era known as “Camelot” was not to rise again. On the contrary, it was about to come to an abrupt, ironic, tragic, and bloody end.

Over the course of just five short days, we watched in shock as President Lyndon B. Johnson stepped aside and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally murdered. We saw race riots erupt in the streets of our cities, and wondered if the whole world just might burn. We heard one of the most stirring pleas for peace and unity ever spoken by any politician when Robert F. Kennedy delivered the news of Dr. King’s assassination in the heart of an Indianapolis ghetto.

Looking back with the hindsight of history, we can now fully comprehend the importance of this pivotal moment. Those who lived through it will never be able to shake the memory. For for the ones who weren’t old enough to remember or had not been born yet, the events of that week still fascinate, even when experienced secondhand through books or grainy old news footage.

It’s a tale of stunning upsets, unimaginable horrors and stark contrasts: of presidents and peace, of war and love, of confusion and clarity, of Kennedys and Kings. Of pain which cannot forget – even after forty years.

LBJ GETS OUT OF THE WAY

The first jolt came on March 31, President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned the nation with the surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election to the presidency in 1968.

Appearing on TV at 9 p.m. that evening, LBJ first announced that he was taking steps to limit the war in Vietnam. He outlined his plan at some length; then, in what seemed almost an afterthought, dropped this unexpected bombshell:

“Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God’s, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.

United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.

Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.

Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.

What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.

With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

LBJ's address to the nation, March 31, 1968

President Johnson addresses the nation on television – March 31, 1968 

At that exact moment, Kennedy (who had just announced his intention to run for the presidency two weeks earlier) was coming in for a landing at La Guardia airport. The New York State Democratic chairman, John Burns, raced aboard the plane and breathlessly told Kennedy, “The president is not going to run.”

Kennedy just stared at him. “You’re kidding,” he said.

On the drive in from the airport, RFK seemed lost in thought. Finally, he said, “I wonder if he (LBJ) would have done this if I hadn’t come in.”

MLK ASSASSINATED

Bobby wouldn’t have much time to ponder Johnson’s motivations. While on the campaign trail four days later — again on an airplane — he recieved word that Martin Luther King had just been shot and killed by a sniper in Memphis.

Kennedy “sagged. His eyes went blank,” said New York Times reporter Johnny Apple, who delivered the news to RFK.

By the time Bobby arrived in Indianapolis, King had been reported dead. Fearing a race riot, the chief of police advised Kennedy to cancel his scheduled appearance in a mostly black neighborhood. Ignoring the warnings, RFK arrived at the speech site – a wind-blown lot surrounded by tenements – in his brother’s old overcoat with the collar turned up.

About a thousand people were gathered there, rallying and cheering for Bobby with all the usual excitment generated at his campaign stops. The crowd awaited his speech, happily oblivious to the news that Dr. King had been shot down. 

Throwing out his prepared remarks, Bobby pulled from his pocket a crumpled piece of paper with his own hastily scribbled notes and began to speak in quiet, reverent tones, his voice occasionally cracking with nervous emotion:

“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 in Memphis, Tennessee.

(Audible gasps and cries of “No! No!” can be heard from the crowd)

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.

(Interrupted by applause)

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.

(Interrupted by 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.”

 
Listen to the entire speech 6:12

The murder of MLK, Lorraine motel, Memphis
(The murder of MLK. Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN. April 4, 1968.) 

PAIN WHICH CANNOT FORGET

Late that night, a sleepless, restless Kennedy was seen wandering the halls of his hotel alone. At 3 a.m., he knocked on the door of Joan Braden, an old friend who had also worked on JFK’s 1960 campaign. Bobby confided to her the true source of his agony.

“Joanie,” he said, “that could have been me.”

Two months later to the day Robert Kennedy was gunned down during a celebration following his victory in the California primary, June 4, 1968. He would die 26 hours later.

While it would be easy to look back after 40 years and dwell on 1968’s sorrows, its’ crippling series of tragedies, perhaps we should instead remember and take to heart Bobby Kennedy’s advice:

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

 

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon.

 Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968

 

 

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Filed under election 2008, JFK, John F. Kennedy, lady bird johnson, LBJ, lyndon b. johnson, politics, president kennedy, RFK, RFK Jr., robert f. kennedy, robert kennedy jr., senator robert kennedy, the kennedys, Uncategorized

14 responses to “Of Kennedys and Kings: Remembering 1968

  1. Trip

    thank you for this well-written and very moving article. it brought back a lot of memories for me…..those are days i will never forget.

    two of the brightest lights of my generation were both snuffed out that year, and things just were never really the same again.

    good to see the fire still burns in Bobby Kennedy Jr. – if he ran for president, it would be a dream come true for me!

  2. Pingback: april 4 1968

  3. chrisy58

    Trip, I think many of us feel the same way as you do. Though I would like to add the name of President Kennedy to that list you mentioned.

    President Kennedy was the first president I remember. I have never felt the same way about any other President since.

    When Bobby ran in 1968 I was so full of hope. I thought that we would be able to achieve so much under his leadership.

    Martin Luther King was truly a man of courage as well.

    I remember the song about Abraham, Martin and John. I include Bobby in that as well. I looked around and they were gone. They saw things as they could be and made the rest of us believe that we could make our dreams into reality.

    I think that both Bobby Jr and Joe too as well as the other kids still have that fire inside of them. I read the other day on a website about the Boston Homeless shelter that Joe and his wife were there helping out and I thought that was wonderful. They made a lot of people happy that day and were a good example in showing that we can all make a difference in our community in helping the poor and hungry. All communities have poor, hungry and homeless people. Yet how many of us actually help out and reach out with our actions.

    We have so many hurting people in this country. We have so many working people who are living below the poverty line who if they want health insurance have to pay at least half their paycheck for very basic coverage or go without. Poverty is still a major issue that I think doesn’t get talked about enough.

    All three of these great men talked about poverty. I don’t know what they would think if they were alive today, but I have a feeling that they would be running as Independents because I don’t think they would be happy with any of the two parties or any of the candidates who are running. We need an honest man who is not afraid to tell the truth to the American people about our true condidtion. I am sorry to say that I don’t think any of the three candidates are honest. They all lie.

    Yes, I too would love to see Bobby Jr run for President, but it has to be his dream. I would hate to see him pressured to run when maybe his dream is something else or that the Lord has another destiny for him. I would encourage him to seek the Lord’s Will on this.

    His destiny might be his work that he has done on the enviroment. His destiny might be to run for public office someday, but I would hope that before he puts his hat in the ring, that he pray and think really hard about it. We all have a destiny and the most important thing is finding that destiny and doing it.

  4. michael seratt

    i want to add another name to abraham,martin,john, and bobby. his name is sen. ted kennedy. we all know he was derailed by chappaquidick,but i gave him the benefit of the doubt. on feb. 1,2008 i attended a rally with sen. kennedy aat e.l.a.city college . he receieved a moving introduction from labor leader maria elena durazo. she said “we are standing in the presence of history.” someone told me he was standing where his brother robert stood almost 40 years ago. he spoke about the obama campaign and the immigrant background of the kennedy family. in 1988 at the democratic convention in atlanta,georgia he said”we democrats are more than a party,we are the keepers of the dream and it is the dream of martin luther king and robert kennedy. the kennedy legacy of social justice must be accompished and i believe it will if we make the commitments of our heroes.

  5. chrisy58

    You make a very good point Michael.

    I think Ted is right when he says we Democrats are more than a political party, but are keepers of the dream of social justice for all in this country for all people. Though I think that sometimes we Democrats forget that. We must fight for the Civil rights of all people from the womb to the tomb. We must speak out for what we know is right and not be afraid to fight and speak for those who can’t fight or speak for themselves.

    Ted was my Senator when I lived in MA. I think he has been a very good Senator and I admire that he is not afraid to fight for what is important to him. Yes, Michael I would add him to that list of people who have made a difference for good in the country.

  6. Michael, you echoed my own thoughts completely when you said:

    “the kennedy legacy of social justice must be accompished and i believe it will if we make the commitments of our heroes.”

    I was just thinking about this over the MLK 40th anniversary weekend. More specifically, I asked myself what will be the effect when the last of King and Kennedy’s generation leaves us. They are all now in their 80s and 90s (and most of them are thankfully in good health), they remain politically active and are still setting an example for the generations who followed them.

    Those who served in JFK’s administration, for instance, redefined public service for a whole new generation, and that legacy was passed on. But sadly, the spirit has diminished in more recent decades.

    In this turbulent election year of 2008, so reminiscent of 1968 in so many ways, with so much talk of “change” in the air, it is heartening to see so many Americans (especially young ones) taking an interest in the political process like we haven’t seen in years. It’s great to see more engaging in activism and demonstrations, organizing in their communities, and keeping the dream alive.

    These are exciting times in which we live, no doubt – and I think most americans are instictively mindful of the fact that we are writing a critical chapter in American history at this very moment.

    This is a turning point, just as 1968 was. We are still facing many of the same problems today that we did then. I just hope we have learned the lessons of history, so that we won’t wind up repeating the mistakes of `68 this year (I’m referring to the Democratic party convention, of course.)

    Perhaps now Ted Kennedy can play the role of peacemaker in the Democratic party – one is sorely needed at this point. Someone who has the respect of the party needs to step in and heal this clinton/Obama divide before it splits the party and costs them the White House.

    Although Ted ruffled a lot of feathers when he endorsed Obama earlier this year, he still has plenty of influence in the party and within the inner circles at Camp Clinton. Since Howard Dean seems to have no interest in brokering peace; neither does Al Gore, someone’s got to do it. And who better than Senator Kennedy to step up to the plate?

  7. chrisy58

    NF, you always bring good food for thought in your posts. You always make us think and that is a good thing.

    Yes, we are truly at a crossroads this year. I think we all believe that.(young,old, middle age, Democrat, Republican or Independent) All Americans feel that we are at a point in our nations’s history that whatever road we choose will effect how this country will act and be viewed for years to come. I pray that we will choose the right road and that we can take this country back for the people.

    Yes, there is growing bitterness in our party. As a party I believe like my family are passionate people who believe strongly in what we are fighting for which sometimes leads to loud discussion. People from the outside looking in when think we are fighting, but those inside know that we just talk loudly with passion at the dinner table. When you have a Republican who is conservative living with Liberal Democrat there is going to be loud disscussion.

    I think that we can work through this. I hope we can. I think that once our candidate is selected at the convention that we will move forward and support and vote our head over our heart. I believe in the end we will do the right thing.

    I hope that we will all take the high road.

    Let us hope that we won’t need someone to step in and act as a father who has to discipline his children when they are acting badly. Let us hope that someone like Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd or any other respected Democrat won’t have to reign us in.

    I believe that reason will rule in the end and as we realize that we have a choice between good and evil and that in order to stop the evil that has been happening in this country under Bush that we need to come together as a party that we will do the right thing. Bush is guilty of treason and I believe that in the years to come we will find out all that he has done in the name of the American people that we do not know about. I don’t even think that the Congress knows all that Bush has done over the years.

    I am not going to sugarcoat things and say we are going to have a love in this year, but inspite of our differences we need to come together inspite of those differences to win the election and than afterward I hope we as a party can discuss all issues that are important to all Democrats.(Even if it is only a few in the party that believe one issue is important to discuss. We should all have a voice within our Democratic party and no voice should be shut out. That is part of the loud discussion that we have at the family dinner table and shouldn’t concern those who are not part of the party.

    I don’t always explain what is in my heart very well.

  8. Well said, Chrisy. I think you explained it perfectly!

    As someone who grew up in a household where both parents were conservative Goldwater Republicans and I somehow (?) turned out to be the only liberal in the family, I know firsthand about those loud discussions you speak of!!! We sure had some good ones. LOL.

    And speaking of parents…I do think the Dems are acting like greedy children at the moment (the fight over seating the florida and michigan delegates is one case in point). Sadly, they do need “Daddy” to smack `em upside the head and tell Clinton and Obama to cut it out, already.

    Okay, just kidding about the smacking them around part. But the party really needs a sane voice of reason to come forward and remind them, “eyes on the prize!”

    Senator Kennedy is probably one of the few voices these candidates and party bigwigs would actually listen to. As the brother of a president who was elected by the slimmest margin of victory ever in the 1960 election, Ted understands only too well how critical party unity will have to be if the Dems want to win this year.

    The lesson of the 2000 election is a more recent reminder, too – of course. But we could also remember that just a few votes the other way could have changed America’s destiny in 1960 as well.

    The very thought of Nixon being President during the Cuban Missle Crisis makes me shudder.

    Luck was on America’s side on election night 1960. But it took more than luck. It took a united party , and it’s important to remember than JFK did not exactly have overwhelming support at the 1960 Democratic convention.

    Many within the party questioned whether it would be foolish to select a Catholic nominee. Others in the party remembered well the disputes between Jack’s father and FDR. Many of them (including Eleanor Roosevelt herself) couldn’t stand Joseph P. Kennedy, and transferred that predjudice onto his son. There were serious reservations among party leaders about Kennedy’s youth, lack of experience, etc…many of the same charges we hear leveled against Senator Obama today.

    So, I guess if the lesson of 1960’s convention should teach us anything, it might be that a Obama/Clinton ticket (or clinton/Obama ticket, whichever you prefer) is the only solution that will keep the party together.

    Naturally, some might say if Obama and Hillary actually agree to such an arrangement, they’ve made a deal with the devil. But they said the same thing when JFK brought LBJ onto the ticket in 1960.

    LBJ’s presence on the ticket that year was probably the critical difference between losing and winning the general election. Without a strong southern Democrat like LBJ (who also had the Congressional experience and sway with party insiders JFK did not have), Richard Nixon would likely have been the 35th President of the United States instead of the 37th.

    So while I tend to dislike the notion of Clinton and Obama joining forces this year, I am also enough of a historian and a realist to see it’s probably the only way.

    You know what they say: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” Couldn’t be any more true than it is this year, could it?

  9. chrisy58

    Last night I was reading salon.com. Joan Walsh had a piece that I put on my blog.

    Thinking about what you said NF, I think you might be right that it is getting really ugly and out of control. A parent may have to step in and say ENOUGH OF THE BAD BEHAVIOR.

    I don’t think that Obama and Clinton will team up. I t hink there is to much bad blood between them now and if things keep going the way they are the blood will only get worst.

    We know that sexism exists and I think this year it is coming into play big time. When you have someone who calls Hilary Clinton a fuxking whore that is really crossing the line and other Democratis defending that action and thinking it is ok to called women who have worked their way into leadership positions that name. Maybe Obama thinks he can win without the women’s vote, but I don’t think so. If we decide in block to stay home or write in Robert F Kennedy Jr do you think Obama can win?

    You want to hear something really sad, Joan was thaking Rush in the piece because he actually said on his show it was wrong. Oh the people on Salon who didn’t like Joan’s litte piece couldn’t wait to call her names either. We are just evil feminists.

    So yes, this is getting really nasty.

    Look I disagree with Hilary on some of the issues. That is fine to say I disagree with you on this issue, but to call her a fuxking whore is wrong.

    Isn’t it sad that two Democratic women have to thank Rush for talking about this on his radio show.

    If someone from Hilary’s camp called Obama a n word you better believe that it would be all over the news, but because Hilary is a woman no mentioned of it and fellow democrats defending the guy who called her that terrible name.

    Yes, I understand why Joan was upset.

    So yes, we may have a repeat of 1969 where we are so divided that a good portion of our base will stay home and let McCain have it. I am almost at the point know with the Fxcking whore comment.

  10. Michael

    Actually i have an idea about that…with the Democratic party being so divded and no broker in sight (like an Al gore), why doesn’t Robert Kennedy jr. run as an independent in 2008, so that we can at least putsomeone with democratic ideals back in the White house instead of John Freakin’ McCain?????

    Look, if the Dems don’t get it together, a lot of Democrats are going to wind up voting for Mccain this november. God, that frightens me!!!!

    The only solution I can see is that if Gore or Kennedy ran third party or independent…especially if the Dems convention turns out to be split this year, many Dems will be ready to go vote for somebody else.

    At least with a Kennedy, they could feel like they’re voting for a democrat, een if he is officially an independent. I don’t care what party he declares himself to be with at this point…Green..Liberatarian, whatever.. I just want him to run and save this country!

    Bobby, please don’t let us get stuck with john McCain!!

  11. Bert French

    My heart still aches for the loss of the future that might have been had Bobby been able to become our leader. It is my hope, as a white middle aged woman, that the people (we the people) who make this great country ( these united states) will work side by side to restore pride, truth, and real justice instead of being driven by the greed of a few. I plan to vote for Obama. I pray this is not a mistake.

  12. chrisy58

    It was good to read again. You have inspired me to do something remembering Martin Luther King on my blog.

    Love
    Chrisy

  13. michael seratt

    at this time i want to ask for the prayers for sen. ted kennedy. prior to his collapse last year i had been rooting for him to stuggle , but with a fatal disease it is time to rest. he has earned it well . i continue to hope and pray for his recovery. last year at the rally i mentioned on feb.i,2008 as he left in an suv he rolled down the window to hear what i would say. i said “all the way with e.m.k. and r.f.k. forever.” i’ll always treasure the memory of that rally. at this time i want to remember a t.v. program i watched shortly after the m.l.k. tragedy. marlon brando went on the joey bishop show and called on all americans to give one percent of their year’s earnings to the southern leadership conference-king’s organization. he said he was giving ten percent of his earnings for 1968 to king’s organization.

  14. Amin

    It is a sad day that the nation loses the last of a truly solid foundation _ a family of prominance that didn’t forget the working men and women of this nation. They didn’t care to earn billions more, they dedicated their lives to the welfare of others.

    I hope the next generation of the Kennedy Clan will carry on Uncle Ted’s dedication to making this a better America, a better world.

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