Two of history’s great rhetoricians – Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F Kennedy – were assassinated 50 years ago. Their words have resonance today, writes Benjamin Ramm.
By Benjamin Ramm
Popular volumes of great speeches celebrate the mastery of the art of persuasion. These tomes are full of rhetorical flourishes, of stirring appeals to universal ideals, with elevated cadences and effortless assurances. But two of the most significant rhetoricians of the 20th Century, both of whom were assassinated 50 years ago this year, delivered speeches that were infused with doubt, with a self-reflective, questioning quality, and which expressed an intimate vulnerability.
On 4 April 1968, the day of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Robert F Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana for the Democratic nomination. He was notified of Dr King’s death on landing in Indianapolis, where he was scheduled to rally support. Instead, Kennedy delivered an extraordinary unscripted eulogy, which drew on his own personal trauma – the assassination of his brother five years earlier – and the classical writers that helped shape his outlook.
“My favourite poet is Aeschylus”, Kennedy told the audience, before quoting a version of Edith Hamilton’s 1930 translation of Agamemnon:
In our sleep,
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Kennedy actually slightly misquoted the text, replacing ‘despite’ with ‘despair’. (In the recording, amid the sobbing in the crowd, you can hear him pause at ‘des’, as if unsure of the second syllable). As Christopher S Morrissey has written, it is difficult to know “whether he misquoted deliberately, fortuitously, or infelicitously” – but his tempering words had a powerful effect. Unlike in 110 other US cities in which there was rioting, the crowd in Indianapolis dispersed quietly.
The morning after King’s death, Kennedy spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, about “the mindless menace of violence”. He decried not only the violence of the bullet or the bomb, but “the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay”, and the alienation that leads us “to look at our brothers as aliens: men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort”. Dr King had preached about being “tied together in the single garment of destiny”, and Kennedy extended the metaphor: “whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”
It is difficult not to be surprised by the candour of “painfully and clumsily”. These words express our fumbling, imperfect attempts to create a meaningful life, as well as our vulnerability – the acknowledgement of which is not a weakness but a source of strength. The rest of Kennedy’s speech was characterised by this acute sensitivity:
“But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short movement of life; that they seek, as we do, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
Appeals to universal empathy are usually presented without complexity, but Kennedy offered a caveat: “if only for a time”. There is a disarming honesty to this suggestion: we ought to love our fellow citizens perpetually, but such an emotional commitment is a significant undertaking. It is not easy to honour our common bond every day (“we can perhaps remember”), or not to fall for the fearful depictions of the ‘other’, whom we are encouraged to distrust.
Dr King worked to create what he called a ‘beloved community’, and wrote extensively in praise of agape, the Greek notion of ‘disinterested love’. This is love not for personal profit, but “for the enemy-neighbour from whom you can expect no good in return” – a radical generosity, a “dangerous unselfishness”. This commitment to those who are hostile or uncaring, who will not reciprocate our affection, might be termed ‘difficult love’. It was, for Kennedy, “not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines… real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving”.
King’s final sermon, delivered to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 February 1968, expresses the kernel of ‘difficult love’. Describing how he would like to be eulogised at his funeral, King remarked: “I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr, tried to love somebody.”
“Tried to” acknowledges that the work of love is challenging and unending. It cannot be summarised with a cliché or treated with the “facility” that Kennedy derided; both he and King averred from offering easy solutions or pandering to lazy prejudices. They regarded the heart as the most important muscle: the more it loves, the better it becomes at loving. At first, it is not easy to exercise – we are cautious, wary of others, and fearful of rejection – but with practice comes fluency.
The day before his assassination, as the death threats escalated, Dr King delivered a prophetic speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop is a masterpiece of craft and delivery, spanning high and low, from Jericho to Mount Olympus, Alabama to ancient Rome. The rhetorical pinnacle of the speech is a moment of great intimacy (“if I had sneezed”), which unlocks his key theme: that King felt privileged to participate in the struggle; that he was born, in the biblical phrase, “for such a time as this”.
Forty years later, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Barack Obama paid tribute to Dr King’s legacy.
Obama’s speech contained the same focus on stories of the marginal and the vulnerable, from what he called “the quiet corners of our lives”. Obama’s tribute ends with a remarkable anecdote (“I am here because of Ashley”), which would later bookend his most important speech.
‘Ripples of hope’
At the start of his first presidential campaign, Obama reflected on the civil rights era in Selma, Alabama, from where King had led freedom marchers in 1965. Obama framed their generational relationship in biblical terms, with King as Moses on the mountaintop:
“I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land.”
This statement seems ironic if one finds currency in the idea that God prohibits Moses from entering the land as an act of mercy, since it was bound to disappoint. Yet it expressed Obama’s conviction that citizens themselves are the agents of transformation: “we are the change we seek”, “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. The building of Jerusalem would rely not on a single man, but a civic awakening – as suggested by the line of scripture that inspired William Blake’s vision:
“But Moses replied, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets…’”
Addressing students at the University of Cape Town in 1966, Kennedy described “the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress”. It was in this speech that he spoke of “ripples of hope” – a line that echoed in the rhetoric of Obama four decades later. Waves of grief would be countered by those of optimism, said Kennedy: “when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility”. Indeed, the last words uttered in public by Dr King, and sung two months later at the funeral of Kennedy, evoke that awesome sense of anticipation: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.