Forty years after his assassination, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been dead for more years than he was allowed to live. That milestone brings more media attention than usual to the April 4 anniversary of his death and the urban riots it touched off.
But, amid painful memories, this year's anniversary reminds me of a significantly uplifting moment, brought to the world by one of that year's presidential candidates, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
As bad luck would have it, the New York Democrat was scheduled to deliver a campaign speech to a black audience in Indianapolis.
Shortly after he arrived by plane, Kennedy was told of King's death. Police warned him to call it off. They considered that part of the city to be a dangerous ghetto. It was the turbulent '60s, after all. More than 200 riots had ripped through American cities in the previous two years. President Lyndon B. Johnson had canceled an overseas trip to prepare for the worst in the U.S.
Kennedy's waiting audience had not yet heard about King's death in Memphis. News traveled more slowly in those pre-Internet days. Kennedy would have to break the bad news. No one knew whether he'd get out of there alive.
But he spoke anyway.
Without notes, he spoke briefly and straight from the heart.
On news film of the event, you can hear the awful news of the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader's death whip Kennedy's audience around in an instant, from an audible spirit of joy to anguished horror that screams across the decades.
Kennedy's voice crackles with emotion, but also with the serenity of a man who has known tragedy before. Soon his words come together into a memorable tribute and a call to carry on what King's life work was all about.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people," he says at one point, "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."
Everyone knew Kennedy was speaking from the heart. He was the brother of a slain president who was beloved by this audience. Bobby Kennedy had moral authority in that instance and knew how to use it in telling his audience how to face their most difficult task, moving on.
"My favorite poet was Aeschylus," Kennedy said. "He once wrote: 'Even 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 G-d.' "
It is hard to imagine what one of today's political spin doctors would advise in a similar situation, but it probably would not be to quote Aeschylus. Yet the ancient poet's lines, delivered from memory, were piquantly appropriate in their call to respond to great pain and grievance with a healing and re-energizing wisdom.
"What we need in the United States is not division," Kennedy said. "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."
At a time when the Democratic Party today is rocked by internal division over its next presidential nominee and the nation remains divided over racial perceptions, experiences and grievances, Kennedy reminds us of a different time. He showed the leadership that enabled him to connect with people who came from backgrounds very different from his.
Despite those differences, he connected with those values we share in common: a deep sense of pain and loss, but also a deeply felt sense of hope for better times ahead.
Before Kennedy concluded with calls for prayer and understanding, he noted, "It is not the end of violence. It is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder." Indeed it wasn't. Riots ripped through more than 100 cities the following evening. But Indianapolis stayed peaceful, as did countless other communities where local leaders took to the streets to call for calm.
Several weeks later, Kennedy would be assassinated on June 5. The world lost a politician who knew better than most about how to build coalitions across lines of race, class and ethnicity. Kennedy and King stand together in our memories as special leaders, the kind who stand up and find the words that need to be said while others look for words to hide behind.