Wednesday, April 04, 2007

THE DAY MARTIN DIED


Otis Redding was singing "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay", the perfect first warm day of spring car radio song, when the Announcer broke in to report that Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis.

I was driving to the university library to study with my girlfriend and her roommate. When I relayed the news, my girlfriend gasped and her friend started to cry. We were three white teenagers from Saskatchewan who probably didn't know two Black people between us. Yet, we knew how much Martin Luther King meant.

At a time when it felt like all the symbols of light and life and what could be good in the world were under siege, Dr. King's peaceful and determined spirit constantly instilled hope, signaling that a better world was always within reach, if only we would make the effort.

Still -- it was with some glee that we watched America's cities explode. It seemed the only recourse to the forces of Darkness was to fight fire with fire.

Due to some atmospheric anomaly that I've never understood, the most powerful radio station on the Canadian prairies at night was WLS in Chicago. It fed us a steady stream of all night R&B and Motown to augment the Rock n' Roll diet of our daylight hours.

That night, my girlfriend and I parked by the lake and polished off an illegal six pack as we listened to the WLS Jocks plead for calm, trying to tame the angry beast with "The Four Tops" and "The Temptations".

The next night, WLS played a speech Robert Kennedy had just made in Cleveland. The words stunned me at the time and stunned me again this week when I heard them once more in Emilio Estevez' wonderful film, "Bobby".

"Bobby" may not be a groundbreaking work, but its message is powerful and it evokes the spring of 1968 and the moods of the times exactly as I remember them.

With another unhappy anniversary of Dr. King's death upon us and the forces of Darkness once more pushing their warped agendas, I thought it worthwhile to publish that speech here.

Obviously written in haste and under extreme emotional duress, Kennedy's words are awesome in their simple reminder of our shared humanity; their original impact only strengthened by our knowledge that the man who voiced them would be himself murdered only a few short weeks later.

Robert F. Kennedy’s Speech to the City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio. April 5, 1968, following the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Mr. Chairmen, Ladies And Gentlemen,

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an 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 reason.

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs."

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others.

Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing 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 the 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 not 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 humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.




1 comment:

Kelly J. Compeau said...

That was a fantastic post, Jim. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings so eloquently about a subject I am equally as passionate about.

KJC