Friday, 4 April 2008

The relevance of King and Kennedy, 40 years on

It's forty years today since the assassination of Martin Luther King. It's forty years, too, since Robert Kennedy, rejecting police warnings, decided to go ahead with a scheduled campaign stop in downtown Indianopolis, where he informed the shocked crowd of King's death. There are a number of clips of Kennedy's announcement on Youtube. This one's probably the best of the bunch, if you can ignore the Italian subtitles:

And here's a brief excerpt:

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.

Democratic political analyst Ron Klain weaves together memories of the events of April '68 with the current US election campaign, and particularly the forthcoming Indiana primary, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times:

With so many people despairing of the long and hard-fought Democratic primary campaign this year, it’s worth remembering what happened 40 years ago, on April 4, 1968, during the last time that the Indiana primary was this significant.

Klain describes Kennedy's extemporised speech that night as 'one of the great speeches in American history.' He also claims that it had an immediate practical impact:

Riots, fires and violence broke out in more than 100 cities in the United States that night — but not in Indianapolis. A park and a memorial to nonviolence now stand at the spot where Kennedy’s words made such an incredible difference that night.

And Klein believes these events have a contemporary relevance:

Forty years later, whenever I hear people say that a politician’s speeches don’t matter, that campaigns are a waste and that the sort of conflict we have in the 2008 Democratic primary is “destructive,” I think of Robert Kennedy’s words in Indianapolis that night — a speech that would have never happened but for the hard-fought, highly competitive 1968 primary campaign — and the millions of people like me who were inspired by them and their impact on that city.

For all the complexity and conflict in the 2008 race, the anniversary of the Kennedy speech reminds us that campaigns can leave lasting legacies of activism and idealism. I see it in my own children this year, a son who is a rabid “Obamafan,” and a teenage daughter who is a devoted “Hillarista.” They are part of a new generation, for whom the 2008 campaign will be their “1968” — the start of a lifetime of involvement and participation in politics. With the Democratic Party set to nominate the first-ever major party African-American or female candidate this year, we are not just remembering history — and the vision of social change that Robert Kennedy so brilliantly set forth on April 4, 1968 — we are living it.

Or as Barack Obama might say (via Deval Patrick): Don't tell me words don't matter.

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