The mindless menace of violence — 50 years later, Robert Kennedy’s words continue to resonate
By Curtis Ramsey-Lucas
On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy spoke at the City Club of Cleveland. Kennedy’s speech on the “mindless menace of violence” continues to resonate.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Kennedy was campaigning in Indianapolis for the Democratic nomination for president. There, at an outdoor rally, he broke the news of King’s death to a largely African-American crowd. Kennedy had decided not to campaign the following day but was encouraged by black leaders to keep his commitment in Cleveland. With the aid of staff, Kennedy worked into the early hours of the morning writing a new speech for the following day.
His Cleveland audience, a lunch crowd of mostly white executives, listened as Kennedy spoke softly but with deep emotion of the “mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” Noting that violence is not the concern of any one race, its victims being “black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown,” Kennedy maintained, that whatever their distinctions, “they are 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 some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on in this country of ours.”
Kennedy also spoke of another kind of violence that is “slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. . . . the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. . . . the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. . . . a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Kennedy lamented the prevalence of violence that tears at the fabric of life and degrades the nation as a whole; and our seeming tolerance of “a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike.” With words that echoed King, he said, “violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”
In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — published shortly before his death — King wrote of the need for a spiritual and moral reawakening, warning that humanity’s future depends on “our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.”
King refused to separate that which we tend too often to address in isolation. Some focus on the need for personal transformation, neglecting to address wider spheres and systems in need of renewal and reformation, while others advocate the reform of systems, institutions and organizations, without attending to the needs of the person for spiritual renewal. Some speak of personal responsibility, others of systemic injustice. King rightly understood, as did Kennedy, that our hope for creative living requires understanding the connections between the two and attending to both.
Two months after he spoke in Cleveland, on the night that he won the California primary, Kennedy was shot and killed — a victim of the rising tide of violence of which he had spoken with such eloquence and urgency.
Fifty years later, we have yet to stem the tide of violence in the United States of America. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. One in 7 children experiences abuse or neglect annually. Each day, on average, 35 people are killed with guns, and 59 people kill themselves with a firearm. One hundred-sixteen people die each day from opioid-related drug overdoses. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world with African- American men disproportionately incarcerated because of, in part, disparate sentencing guidelines for drug crimes. One in 5 five children lives in poverty, and 1 in 6 households with children cannot buy enough food for their families.
The challenges before us are great. So is our capacity to address them. To do so, we must reject false distinctions that separate us from those with whom we share this brief moment of life. Moreover, we must learn, in Kennedy’s words, “to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.”
Doing so is a gospel imperative. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Only in so doing, may we yet reestablish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.