America is the story of improvisation.
From the ad hoc debates that framed our founding documents, to the native jazz syncopations that power our cultural soundtrack, to the deeply American notion that we all deserve second chances – our national fabric is woven together by motley patches of spontaneous innovation, creativity and reinvention.
It’s no wonder that we cherish the myth that our history’s greatest oration was scribbled furiously on the back of an envelope during a train ride to a Pennsylvania battlefield.
But while Lincoln’s words were more planned and deliberate, the most significant speech of the 20th century was indeed improvised, a spontaneous burst of prose and poetry in the immediate wake of national tragedy. And much as the Gettysburg Address forever redefined the Founders’ promise that “all men are created equal,” Bobby Kennedy’s extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr.—delivered 46 years ago today—can offer a path toward a more just, compassionate second act for our country.
It was the evening of April 4, 1968, and a bitter, black nightfall had descended on one of our nation’s grayest days.
Rejecting the impassioned urging of local officials who feared imminent violence, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ascended the back of a flatbed truck in a vacant lot, surrounded by dilapidated public housing units, in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto. Hair tussled, wearing the old overcoat of his fallen brother, Bobby stepped up to a single microphone before a growingly angry African-American audience that had waited hours in the freezing cold to confirm what many had already heard: that Martin Luther King, Jr.—their Voice—had been permanently silenced. And without notes, speaking directly from his heart, a heart that ached from an unimaginable half-decade of grief—grief for a brother, for a comrade-in-peace, for a nation in turmoil—Robert Kennedy improvised the speech of his life.
The speech’s immediate impact is well known: while riots plagued, burned and ravaged 110 American cities that evening, Indianapolis remained calmed by a sober peace.
But Kennedy’s oration also merits a more timeless significance.
His most famous line, reminding the angry audience that his brother too had been felled by a white man’s bullet, were words that only he could have uttered. And only RFK, who had sought the refuge of Greek poetry to cope with his personal grief from the tragedy of Dealey Plaza, would have quoted these same poets in the middle of what would have been a political rally.
But at the core of the speech, you can find universal language: words that could apply to any generation; words that still resonate today:
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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. 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 that abide in our land.
As he had done throughout his 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy took the opportunity not simply to pacify the crowd in his immediate purview, but also to share a communitarian message that embraced all Americans.
A divisive selfishness had emerged in the late 1960s that had begun to dominate the body politic. If 1967 had the Summer of Love, 1968 brought America the Season of Hate. The anti-Vietnam cauldron was bubbling over, stoked by the heat of the Tet Offensive and the unprecedented prime-time scalding by America’s Most Trusted Man, Walter Cronkite. The civil rights movement had arrived at a bleaker and angrier phase, punctuated by waves of racial violence in urban areas across the country. And Richard Nixon was honing his cynical, yet powerful, appeal to the nation’s bitter undercurrent of selfish resentment, whose targets he would later label the “silent majority.”
Throughout his campaign, but most poignantly on April 4, Kennedy drew upon Greek ideals and Judeo-Christian principles, reminding Americans that the only way that our nation could flourish was through pursuit of a common good. Sure, there would always be outliers and extremists who provoked dissension and divisiveness to strengthen their own selfish hands. But the vast majority of Americans wanted our leaders to put aside their labels on occasion, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach for a common higher ground. On one of the darkest evenings in American history, RFK reminded us of our potential for greatness, if only we ignored the haters and remembered the Golden Rule.
We’ve endured more than 40 years of wandering since hope appeared to have taken its final breaths on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and a few months later, when Bobby himself perished in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. More than 40 years dominated by a bi-partisan politics of self-interest, an involuntary conspiracy among the politicians, industry chieftains, culture vultures, and the media, all battling each other to wrest out their own fleeting piece of power, fifteen minutes of celebrity, or pound of fool’s gold.
For the briefest time, when just as Bobby Kennedy had famously predicted, an African-American had risen to the same seat of power held by his brother, we thought that we may have finally entered a post-partisan, post-racial world. But it was only after a few months in office—and a loud, angry, tea-flavored strain of self-interested politics had sucked all of the oxygen from the political debate—that most Americans concluded Barack Obama’s powerful message of healing and unity appeared, in retrospect, to be naïve and unattainable.
But as our current leaders continue to slavishly recite the poll- and focus-group-tested sound bites handed to them by their political consultants, it would be wise for them to pause to remember Bobby Kennedy’s improvised moment in 1968. We can continue as a body politic to trade hyper-partisan jabs and appeal to our nation’s most selfish impulses; or we can speak from the heart, without the filter of talking points, and use words that identify and promote a common good—that appeal to our most compassionate instincts, values that are at the heart of both our common religious traditions and the nature of the American experiment itself.
Improvising can certainly be unnerving, especially for politicians who are trained to be risk-averse. But as Bobby Kennedy proved 46 years ago today, we as a nation desperately need leaders who will step out of their comfort zones, and take a leap of faith by trusting the very best of the American people.