On April 4, 1968 — the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a sniper — Robert Kennedy gave (arguably) one of the greatest American speeches not given by a president.
Speaking in a tough section of Indianapolis, Kennedy informed the shocked crowd that King was dead, quoted Aeschylus on the wisdom that comes “drop by drop” from pain, and set out the ideal of a politics that could “make gentle the life of this world.” Kennedy urged Americans “to make an effort to understand” — offering empathy as the best hope in “rather difficult times.”
Indianapolis was calm that night, but there were soon riots in 110 other American cities. So, on April 5, 1968, Kennedy spoke in Cleveland, giving a brief speech, undeservedly neglected. “No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders,” he said. “A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people.”
This balance between empathy and a concern for order is what many leaders strive for today. Our country is less riven than in 1968, but our leaders are not as skilled, at least when it comes to rhetoric. We are not asking for Aeschylus, and would probably mock his appearance in a speech today, but it would be nice if politicians did not immediately fall into partisan ruts, or post Facebook banalities.
What American leader is equal to explaining this moment and moving us forward? The question just echoes.
President Barack Obama, as he demonstrated in a fine speech on the 50th anniversary of Selma, can sometimes find the words. But he has become symbolic of the limits of symbolism. Many thought his election was a fundamental turning point on issues of race. But just 15 percent of Americans now believe his presidency has brought blacks and whites together. It is a failure not entirely his fault, but it contributes to an atmosphere of cynicism.
Hillary Clinton argues that we are “stronger together,” but she remains one of the most divisive and distrusted politicians in America. Speaker Paul Ryan spoke movingly on the floor of the House in reaction to Dallas, urging Americans to defy the predictions of division — but he is at least partially discredited by his endorsement of a presidential candidate who thrives on discord. Chuck Todd of NBC News wonders if support for Donald Trump will be a “stain” or a “tattoo.” I would bet a tattoo, leaving only a handful of Republicans unmarked by exclusion.
Trump is the entrepreneur of enmity, employing ethnic stereotypes on the first day of his campaign, and breaking through imagined “ceilings” of GOP support by encouraging fear of Muslims after the San Bernardino attack. Some in the conservative media are actively practicing a white identity politics — witness the Drudge Report’s headline “Black Lives Kill.” The whole political enterprise of turning out the white vote — the only real hope of the Trump campaign — is morally problematic and dangerous.
In fact, there are people on the left and right who benefit from encouraging just enough division, just enough fear, to motivate their supporters, without tipping them over into violence. They are playing with fire in a parched and withered land.
Even as an outsider to the world of liberal advocacy, I think it is possible to see some troubling trends. Civil rights movement-era figures thought they could improve society by changing institutions — passing legislation or winning judicial battles. And the aspirations of the movement were carried in the durable institution of the African-American church. But younger activists seem to have less faith in institutional reform because they have less faith in institutions — including religious ones. But without a belief in reform, how is justified anger channeled into constructive purposes? “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load,” offered Langston Hughes. “Or does it explode?”
Even if we cannot, as individuals, hope to change systemic racism, most of us have the ability to defy our times and reach out across lines of race and religion. And religious people have a particular calling in this area. A pastor friend who runs a retreat center in rural Virginia found an abandoned slave cemetery on the property. His religious community reached out to African-American leaders and together they rededicated the cemetery, asking for forgiveness and praying for healing. None who participated came away unchanged.
While waiting for leaders, perhaps the most practical and hopeful path is to become them.