Martin Luther King stood on a motel balcony facing a row of rundown buildings near downtown Memphis. The door to Room 306 was open behind him. Inside, his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, was putting on cologne, getting ready to go out. In the parking lot below, his aides, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and James Orange among them, waited for him. Musician Ben Branch was there, too. "Ben," he said, "make sure you play 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty." Branch promised he would.
At first, Abernathy thought the popping sound was a firecracker. Then he saw King, sprawled on the balcony floor, clutching at his throat where the bullet had ripped it open. Abernathy ran to him. King's mouth quivered. "I got a message from his eyes," Abernathy would later say.
This was 40 years ago, April 4, 1968, a night when tragedy spiraled into violence across the country. But also, a night when tragedy was elevated into greatness and grace. Most people don't know that part of the story, even now.
Greatness and grace were desperately needed in those frightening hours. On the night Martin Luther King was killed, furious black people mourned the man of peace by making war. Rocks and bottles were thrown in Jackson, Miss. Tampa, Fla., police had to move in with bayonets fixed to disperse an angry crowd. A furniture store in Houston was torched.
Tragedy waiting to happen
And Sen. Robert F. Kennedy went to Indianapolis. People told him not to. The Indiana capital was tragedy waiting to happen. Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, was scheduled to address a huge crowd at an intersection in the inner city. Most of the crowd was black, but a smattering were white. Some knew what had happened in Memphis. Many still did not.
And what would they do when they found out? What would they do when they learned that this most revered of men had been murdered by a white man hiding in ambush? Would those black people - many of them young, angry, impatient with speeches and marches and promises of justice - rain their rage, bitterness and grief upon the most convenient target: the white people standing among them?
This was what authorities feared. So Kennedy's men advised him sternly to call off the rally for his own safety. Kennedy refused. As his car approached, police stopped it and gave similar advice. Stay out. Stay away. Again, Kennedy refused.
Robert Kennedy was, in many ways, not the first person you'd choose for the job of racial reconciler. He was white and born of privilege, his upper-crust roots audible in every exhalation of that Brahmin accent that pronounced "chance" as "chawnce" and turned "whether" into "whethah." Nor had he always been a devotee of the civil rights movement. To the contrary, he had regarded it warily, concerned over its potential to embarrass his brother John, the president. Indeed, it was Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, who loosed J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to spy upon and harass King.
RFK had capacity to change
But Kennedy was also that rarity, a man with the capacity to change. It is hard to say when that change occurred in him. Maybe it was somewhere in his dealings with intransigent, stand-in-the-doorway Southern potentates who refused to protect the rights of peaceful demonstrators or abide by the Constitution of the United States. Maybe it was that night King and his followers were trapped in a church by a howling, riotous mob of whites, and Kennedy had to send federal marshals to rescue them.
Or maybe it was when he went to the Mississippi Delta to see firsthand the effects of poverty and hunger in America. What he saw scarred him. Children with running sores, suffering from diseases long thought eradicated, living in barren shacks that smelled of mildew and urine. In one such place, he found a baby lying listlessly on the floor, playing with a grain of rice. He went to her, stroked her hair, whispered to her, "Hi, baby," trying a coax a response. But she could not give him one. After a few minutes, he picked her up and cradled her. There were tears shining on his cheek.
His daughter, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, once told Life magazine, "I remember all of us sitting around the dinner table one night. We were all screaming and shouting and saying, 'Pass the milk' and 'Pass the butter,' and all of a sudden the door opened, and my father was standing there, and it was dead silent. And he said, 'I've just come from a part of the country where three families have to live in a room this size. You've got to do something to help those children. You've got to help those children. PLEASE help those children."'
On the night Martin Luther King was killed, 14th Street in Washington, D.C., was burned. On the night Martin Luther King was killed, black people stoned police cars near a housing project in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury.
A stunning message
And on the night Martin Luther King was killed, Robert Kennedy mounted the back of a flatbed truck and faced a sea of black women and men in Indianapolis. Gasoline scented the air. Some people had chains, knives and guns. Ready. Waiting.
"I've got some very sad news for all of you," he said, "and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee."
Shrieks rose from those who did not know. Dismay. Disbelief.
Kennedy spoke on. In this difficult hour, he said, "It is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country. ... Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with an effort to understand, compassion and love."
He used no notes. His voice was measured. The crowd was still. 'For those of you who are black," he continued, "and are tempted to 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."
He had never spoken of his murdered brother before, not publicly, not like this. For five years, he had held that pain close, kept it to himself. Now he used it to pave common ground with these people, so unlike him in so many ways. He used his grief to say that he understood theirs, to remind them that grief is not black or white, but just human. And he quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus to suggest that if they could just get through grief, they would yet find reward on the other side:
"'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 God."'
Robert Kennedy had what some people say they see in Barack Obama 40 years later: that sense of the new, that ability to reconcile differences and distances, to bring Americans together. He drew upon these things.
Message of compassion
"What we need in the United States," he said, "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."
The applause was at first hesitant. Then it grew. Somebody cheered. Hope redeemed.
Two months later almost to the day, walking through a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles after winning California's Democratic presidential primary, Kennedy was shot in the head and killed. The 1960s were like that. The unthinkable was the everyday.
And once again America mourned what might have been. But he had given the nation a glimpse of it, standing on that flatbed truck in that dangerous place, speaking from his heart.
On the night Martin Luther King was killed, two police officers were shot in Detroit, windows were smashed in Raleigh, N.C., the mayor of New York was driven from Harlem by an angry mob. And Robert Kennedy reached across.
On the night Martin Luther King was killed, Indianapolis slept in peace.