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Sen. Robert Kennedy

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 6/22/2018, 5:29 p.m.
On the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had announced his decision to ...

Children’s Defense Fund

On the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had announced his decision to run for president, was campaigning in Indiana when the news came of King’s assassination. He movingly shared the terrible news with the waiting crowd of mostly Black people, urging them not to hate and reminding them that a White man had killed his brother too, and spoke even in that terrible heartbreaking moment about his vision for what America could be:

“[Y]ou can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization – Black people amongst Black, White people amongst White, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love…. 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 or lawlessness; but 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 they be Black…. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future… 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 who abide in our land.”

It was a spontaneous message of compassion and hope and nonviolence that epitomized Kennedy as the human being he was and leader he had become after his brother’s tragic assassination. Our dark, deep despair at King’s death was leavened only by the fact that we still had Robert Kennedy who if elected president might not only end the war in Vietnam but finish waging the needed war against poverty that should have no room in rich America. But two months and two days later, Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet on my birthday, June 6, 1968. I never wore the beautiful bracelet my fiancé Peter Edelman, Kennedy’s legislative assistant, had bought at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as a birthday present.

As I walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City where Robert Kennedy’s body lay in state, a weeping Charles Evers, slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers’ brother, clung to me asking over and over, “What are we going to do now?” Riding the train from New York City to Washington, D.C. bearing Robert Kennedy’s body, I was deeply moved by the stricken faces of young and old, Black and White who lined the train route and mirrored my stricken heart. The single most poignant moment for me was when the hearse carrying Robert Kennedy’s body to rest near his brother John Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery crossed Memorial Bridge and paused for a brief time at the Lincoln Memorial allowing the poor people still in Resurrection City from the Poor People’s Campaign to bid farewell while singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was Robert Kennedy’s last campaign.