Monday, December 22, 2008

Understanding and compassion

In the November 2008 Reader's Digest there was an article by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend about her father, Robert Kennedy. I found this part of the article especially moving. Not only because it involved Indianapolis, but also because one man, at great personal risk, used what he learned from his own grief to reach out to others also feeling overwhelming grief.

The day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, my father was on his way to deliver a speech in Indianapolis during his campaign for president. He received word of Dr. King's murder and then word from Mayor Richard Lugar that he should not come to give the speech, as it was too dangerous downtown and the mayor could not guarantee his safety.

The mayor was not being unreasonable. Across the country, cities were about to break out in angry desperation and rioting as the awful news began to spread.

But my father believed that he had to go. His campaign was about reconciliation. He could not refuse to go. On his way there, he scribbled a few notes to himself.

Standing on the back of a flatbed truck, my father addressed the crowd and told them about Dr. King's death. They had not yet heard the news. After their gasps of grief and lost hope, he delivered a speech that, sadly, still resonates today (as my father also said to the crowd that day, "I had a member of my family killed...he was killed by a white man"):

"My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, 'Even in our sleep, pain which we 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.'

"What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need is not violence or lawlessness - but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice for those who still suffer in our country whether they be white or whether they be black.

"So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King. But more importantly, to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and compassion."

While riots broke out in more than 100 cities that night, there were none in Indianapolis. A black assistant chief of police said that the senator and his family could have slept outside all night and remained unharmed. My father had reached people with his own understanding of suffering and pain and with what had been his clear determination to serve and to help. His actions gave his words credibility.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this article too. In part because of the message, but also because it speaks of days when the Democratic Party was merely another political party with a different approach to problems - and not the amoral, socialist, elitist party they have become.