Just over 7 years ago, in early 2009, I bought a CD of some of Robert Kennedy’s greatest speeches. Whilst his brother John F. Kennedy gave some memorable speeches, for me Bobby Kennedy possibly surpassed JFK with his eloquence. One of his most moving and wonderful speeches has been passing through my mind these last two weeks or so; with the senseless shootings of innocent black people by police in the United States, the killing of the five policemen by an assassin in Houston, the horrific terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day which has killed at least 84 people, many of them children, and the failed coup in Turkey with over 100 dead. And, just as I was putting this blog together yesterday, the shooting of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge.
Robert Kennedy (RFK) served as Attonery General under his brother’s Prisidency, but in 1965 he entered the Senate as one of the senators for New York. On 16 March 1968, RFK announced that he would run for the presidency, and set about touring the USA to garner support for his campaign. On the evening of 4 April, he was due to give a speech in Indianapolis when he learnt en-route of the assassination of Martin Luther King. He broke the news to the gathered crowd, many of whom had not heard the news until Bobby Kennedy told them. He gave a very moving and powerful speech on that evening, and I may blog about that particular speech another time.
But, today I am going to share the speech that he gave the day after MLK’s assassination, on 5 April 1968. The speech is entitled “The mindless menace of violence“, and it was delivered at the Cleveland Club in Ohio.It is quite a long speech, nearly 10 minutes long, but bear with it and I think you will be struck by its eloquence. Bobby Kennedy wrote the speech himself, putting it together in the hours after the horror of MLK’s assassination had sunk into his mind.
The speech opens with these lines….
This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.
It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.
Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.
No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people……
But, Bobby Kennedy was also deeply concerned with the economic disparities in the United States, and with the sickening racism which had profoundly disturbed him. He later goes on to say…
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done.
Followed immediately by these words…
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
The entire text can be found here at the John F. Kennedy presidential library website.
There are several versions of this mesmerising speech on YouTube, but many seem to have had an annoying soundtrack of some music added. I feel the added music detracts from hearing Bobby Kennedy’s words, which are powerful enough and do not need any music to make them more dramatic. So, the version I have included here is just RFK’s incredible words.
What strikes me most when I hear or read these words of Bobby Kennedy is how little progress we have made. One could argue that we have digressed; there are more mass shootings now in the USA than in the 1960s when these words were spoken. There is more terrorism and conflict than ever. And, in the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump, we have a man who is the very antithesis of the wonderful ideals for which Bobby Kennedy stood.
I would say “enjoy” this video, but I am not sure that one can enjoy this speech. It is moving, harrowing, thought-provoking, upsetting, but also uplifting. To think that RFK was himself assassinated within a few months of giving this speech, it only adds poignancy to his words and highlights even more the truth and sadness of the mindless menace of violence.