April 4th marks a terrible anniversary in the history of our nation. On this day in 1968, James Earl Ray gunned down Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. (For a wonderful book on the assassination and the manhunt that followed, read Hampton Sides' "Hellhound on His Tail").
King's assassination prompted widespread rioting around the country. One major metropolitan city was spared such riots: Indianapolis. The reason widely believed, was the speech Robert F. Kennedy gave upon learning that King had died as the result of Ray's attack. RFK was warned not to take the stage and that the police did not believe they could protect him if he took the stage and informed the audience of King's death. What followed was arguably one of the greatest political speeches in American history.
Historian Evan Thomas on the speech:
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Kennedy told his audience, not many of whom had graduated from high school, but who now listened with rapt attention. “He wrote, ‘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 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 black.
“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but most importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke …
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
That night, as the news of King’s death spread through the blighted parts of the land, there were riots in 110 cities causing 39 deaths and injuring 2,500. But in the city of Indianapolis, where Kennedy had spoken, it was quiet.