Robert’s thinking had changed much by the spring of 1968, and much of this change was due to the influence of Martin Luther King. As Attorney General, he had ordered the FBI to wiretap Martin because of suspicions of communist affiliations in the SCLC. Yet by 1968, Robert shared a commitment with Martin to fight poverty and to end the war in Vietnam. And Bobby and Martin even shared an anti-materialistic philosophy, which in turn was derived from Mahatma Gandhi.
The shock and hurt in learning of Martin’s death that same day (April 4, 1968) must have been overwhelming for Robert. His brother John had died from an assassin’s bullet only five years before. Therefore, I recognize it as a sizeable achievement that Robert could maintain such a level of stoic composure, as he does, when speaking on this sad occasion in Indianapolis.
One must assume that Robert knew that violence and rioting would break out in our nation, once Americans learned of the savage shooting of King at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. This turned out to be the case, with riots erupting in 50 cities throughout our country. However, Indianapolis was the exception, and remained peaceful on that sorrowful evening. Certainly Bobby can be credited with the peaceful condition preserved in Indianapolis on that turbulent night in our history.
In his speech Robert quotes from the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who understood that wisdom is derived from accepting pain and suffering, that can transform a man and bring him understanding. “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” This is a lesson Martin learned as well.
“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.”
I chose these words arbitrarily from the Letter from Birmingham. I could just as easily have chosen any paragraph from this inspirational epistle that fully explains why his people had to make an active effort to break the yoke of racism and segregation that obstinately persisted in the Deep South. While floundering in solitary confinement, King wrote this defense out on newspapers or scraps of paper he had lying around his jail cell. But you might ask, where did Martin get these ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience?
In 1959 Martin visited Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace in India. While King may have had other influences for his ideals of nonviolent civil disobedience, such as the Quakers or Christianity itself, it looks as if Gandhi was his biggest influence. It was Bayard Rustin who helped Martin integrate this philosophy of peaceful resistance into his program for the civil rights movement. On his last day in India King made the following statement:
“Since being in India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the universe; these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
In the last year of his short life, Martin spoke out against the Vietnam War stronger than any others. Bobby joined Martin in his belief that the war was wrong. The two were unified in their fight against poverty as well. I sense that Bobby was greatly influenced by Martin, and may have recognized the hand of Gandhi in this regard. Sorry, but I can’t provide you with a citation to support this leap of faith.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Bobby and Martin were together in their thinking by early 1968. Opposition to ‘LBJ’s War’ was a mutual cause for these two charismatic leaders. The focus of my curiosity this morning, which so happens to be MLK day, is the question of whether the anti-war movement in the U.S., which was more a mainspring of our white youth, begins to unify with the civil rights movement, which was more strongly embraced by blacks?
Without exhausting this interesting topic with academic acumen, I lean in the direction of believing this to be true. A few words of Martin support this belief. “I have not urged a mechanical fusion of civil rights and peace movements. There are people who have come to see the moral imperative of equality, but who cannot yet see the moral imperative of world brotherhood. I would like to see the fervor of civil rights movement imbued into the peace movement to instill it with greater strength.”
Clearly, Martin recognized that it would be a good idea to bring these two movements together. And Bobby may have decided to run for the presidency because he believed that he could provide better leadership qualities than Eugene McCarthy, and head up this peace movement. The goal was to stop the war in Vietnam, a goal that Bobby shared with Martin; but the leadership in this decisive cause rests with King.
In fact, King went to Memphis in order to help the sanitation workers, who were on strike for better wages and improvements in working conditions. When Bobby found out about King’s death he must have experienced a great deal of shock, since their cause for social equality had so much in common. This was a monumental tragedy and Bobby was highly aware of that truth.
Yet Bobby is composed and strong, and voices compassion and wisdom in urging our country to remain peaceful, in the wake of Martin’s untimely assassination. He thinks only of the country’s good, asks for peace and understanding, wants the nation to heal, not for more blood to run in the streets. As history would unfold, as it will, he too would succumb to an assassin’s bullet in little more than two months hence. Did he sense his fate would closely mirror that of Martin’s, after offering a few words of solace on that dark spring day?