During the Fourth of July I try to recount some of the things that I love about this country. One of the things I love about America was the common vision that Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were fighting for in 1968.
Though King and Kennedy were not close friends, they shared the same goals of bridging the racial divide between white and minority communities, bringing to an honorable end an unpopular war, and building a multiracial coalition to fight for economic justice for all Americans. King was trying to build a social movement that would put pressure on the political and economic system from the outside. Kennedy was trying to enact reforms from inside the political system. Both wanted to tackle the structural problems that trapped both minority and poor white communities in a cycle of unending poverty.
Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential campaign was reaching out to poor White Appalachian communities, rural Midwest farm communities, inner city Black and Hispanic communities, Native American reservations, striking Filipino and Mexican farm workers. He won several Democratic primaries by creating a coalition of White blue collar voters and minority voters and talking about their common economic struggles. Kennedy talked about law and order in response to the looting and vandalism of race riots that hit many cities in 1967 and 1968. But Kennedy also said that law and order is not possible until this country deals with the economic inequalities that fuel the riots.
During this same period, Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to organize a Poor People’s Campaign where poor people of all races would camp in the National Mall in Washington D.C. and pressure Congress to focus more on the problems of the poor. King was trying to prove that a nonviolent multi-racial protest campaign was effective in bringing results for economic justice for all Americans. King was under tremendous pressure from African American activists like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton who advocated for more violent actions to defend black communities against oppression. Though King disagreed with their tactics, he did agree that the African American community could not gain full equality until it gains economic equality.
Here is an excerpt of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated:
“What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.
No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. 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…
…Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.”