On April 4, 1968, only four days after Lyndon Johnson jolted the country with his televised decision not to seek another presidential term, a second cataclysmic episode shattered America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Memphis leading a strike of prominently black sanitation workers, was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
Ray was a former Army enlistee and convict who fled to Toronto and London and was indicted on charges of murder and conspiracy to violate King's civil rights. He pled guilty while insisting from start to finish that he was not motivated by racism. But riots and burnings broke out in cities across the country. Ray died in prison at age 70 in April 1998 while serving a 100-year term.
On the night before the shooting, King had addressed a crowd of African-Americans at the Mason Temple in Memphis, on the climate of racial hatred he often encountered in the South. He alluded to the rumors and death threats against him in one of his most stirring speeches:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
"And I don't mind.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.
"I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
"And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
That night, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, then a Democratic presidential candidate, was campaigning in Indianapolis. When he heard the news, he went immediately to a rally in a black section and informed the shocked the audience. After expressing his own grief, Kennedy said:
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."
Without notes, he went on: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: 'In our sleep, pain which 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 in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."
Kennedy continued in that vein, calling on the crowd to pray for Dr. King and his family, "but more importantly to say a prayer for our country." He concluded: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."
The crowd was stunned into sorrowful silence, and many who heard him broke into tears. Little did they know that in their grief they would be revisiting it only two months later, when Robert Kennedy would meet the same fate in Los Angeles on the night of the California Democratic primary he won, but was denied his chance for the American presidency in that fateful year.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.