RFK's Mindless Menace of Violence, Still

Abby Zimet

Given Arizona, and Obama's speech, and the upcoming MLK Day, it's instructive to revisit the remarkable but little-noted speech Robert Kennedy made in Cleveland the day after King's murder in 1968, just months before he himself was killed. Deriding violence as "the voice of madness, not the voice of reason," Kennedy stressed that the victims of violence "are human beings whom other human beings loved and needed." 

 The whole speech: 

"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

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

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."

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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