HIS AIDES STRONGLY ENCOURAGED HIM to beg off from the engagement. It was believed that rioting was about to break out across the country, and here in Indianapolis human anger would pour out onto the streets. It was rainy and cold, and so dark that the Life magazine photographer couldn’t shoot what came to be an epic scene. His speechwriter had cobbled together some hasty notes for his boss but they were tucked away, unused.
When Robert Kennedy climbed aboard the flatbed truck that evening, he asked the mayor of the city, “Do they know?” he asked, nodding at the crowd. “To some extent,” came the reply. “We thought we’d leave that up to you.”
It was then that Bobby Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1968, approached the microphone and delivered the devastating news. “I am only going to talk to you for a minute or so because I have some very bad news for all of you … Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis.”
People let out audible screams, sinking to their knees in horror. From the fringes of the mostly black crowd, some men pumped their fists, crying out, “Black Power!” Hundreds burst into tears and shock.
What followed was one of the great speeches in American history – impromptu and transparently sincere. Kennedy reminded those before him that both blacks and whites wanted a country better than what they had, but that violence over King’s death could ruin that dream. He asked them to consider quietly returning home, praying for King’s family, and for the country. He closed off with a clarion call for understanding mixed with justice:
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
As stirring as Kennedy’s words were, they were transcended by their very effect on his audience. In 119 cities that night the predicted riots broke out, leaving 46 dead, 2500 injured, and destruction unmatched since the Civil War 100 years earlier. Only one city escaped the violence – Indianapolis. Kennedy had taken himself to the epicenter of the moments and delivered on people’s better aspirations instead of their crippling fears.
In so many dimensions, this is what leadership is supposed to be about – raising hopes and justice above prejudice and the status quo. Kennedy’s aides had pressed him hard to cancel but he understood that if the people before him that night – the nation too – required anything, it was a human being touched to the very depths of the soul.
It is this kind of principled leadership that our present federal election campaign is calling for. It’s not merely struggling over how many refugees to accept, but how to lead the world in bringing peaceable security for the vulnerable everywhere. It’s not just about parts-per-million of CO2 vented into the air, but the courage to bring our collective lifestyle in line with our planet’s vulnerabilities. It’s hardly about bemoaning the growing gap between the rich and poor, but courage necessary to close that gap. And it’s not about minor parliamentary reforms in an age of democratic deficit, but the placing of people at the centre of all political calculations and policies. It’s not enough to tinker; we must transform, and that will take leadership of the highest order.
Political calculations that night in Indianapolis concluded that Kennedy should cancel, not merely for his own safety, but because the optics looks awful. But in his calendar that day he had written down a phrase by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Kennedy tossed prevailing political wisdom out the window and called his nation to something far higher than mere partisan politics could provide or inspire.
We require this kind of fortitude from our leaders in the midst of a vital election campaign. Speak truth to us because we have the power to select. Lift us higher. Help us to take on our greatest challenges with comprehensive policies instead of cheapening us with smaller expectations. We have been running low on the high-octane fuel required for democracy these days and we require better than we’re presently getting. Make us what we collectively can be instead of what we merely individually desire. Help us to stand up for ideals again instead of falling for convenient promises. Speak to us of a just and compassionate nation. Make us collectively meaningful again. Do what you’ve been afraid to do.