It was half a century ago, but eerily familiar. A sniper’s bullet had pierced America’s heart. Candidates in the superheated race for the White House strained to respond to a nation torn into ragged halves — one black, one white, both afraid of what would come next. For Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. spawned a clarity of purpose that energized his bridge-building presidential campaign and offers a model to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the aftermath of the assassinations in Dallas.
“I have some — some very sad news for all of you … Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight,” Kennedy said at a rally hours later in Indianapolis’ inner city as his nearly all-black audience gasped as one: “No! No!”
He continued, louder but his voice still tremulous: “For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man… . So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding.” His remarks, ad-libbed and lasting barely five minutes, were pitch perfect.”
No one else had Kennedy’s credibility in talking about the pain of a loved one gunned down, or about racial reconciliation. Indianapolis would be hailed as an island of calm during that Holy Week Uprising that saw riots break out in more than a hundred U.S. cities. If the King murder and its aftermath put urban unrest back on the front burner of the 1968 campaign, it also reinforced that Kennedy was the most trusted white man in black America. As the signs in the ghetto said: “Kennedy white but alright.”
The next day he canceled all campaign appearances except one at the Cleveland City Club. “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,” Kennedy told his mostly white and wealthy listeners. “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — 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 wasn’t just words. Kennedy had been adrift in the early days of the civil rights struggle when, as attorney general, he approved wiretaps of King and responded ham-handedly to racial violence in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and Oxford, Mississippi. But he was growing through experience in a way politicians seldom did or do. He stood up to “segregation forever” Gov. George Wallace in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, pioneered a program to resurrect America’s biggest ghetto in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, and lectured to black as well as white audiences about sacrifices both would need to make on the route to reconciliation. Are you listening Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
America seemed to be listening in 1968. Kennedy carried the seven largest counties in Indiana, where Wallace, the racial-backlash candidate, had done best in the presidential primary four years before. And in California, on the eve of his own assassination, Kennedy rode unprecedented turnouts and majorities in black and Mexican-American districts to score a clear-cut victory with 46.3 percent of the vote, compared to his nearest rival’s 41.8 percent. This man from Massachusetts, who grew up mingling with queens, popes, and Hollywood idols, was forging bonds not just with blacks, Chicanos, and American Indians, but with the firemen and bricklayers a later generation would call “Reagan Democrats.”
Would a candidate do the same today?
Tye is the author of seven books, including “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” which was released last week by Random House.