There has been much commentary this year in reference to the 50th anniversary of the remarkable confluence of tumultuous events that occurred during 1968. Even an abbreviated timeline portrays a head-spinning litany of turmoil.
The January Tet Offensive in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson's shocking declaration that he would not seek re-election. The stunning assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King during the Memphis sanitation worker's strike that sparked days of rioting in cities across the country. The burning of draft records at the Selective Service office in Catonsville. The how-can-this-be-happening again assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy on the night of his victory in the California presidential primary. The televised violent confrontations between police and protestors during the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The raised fists of American medal winners, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, during the playing of the National Anthem at Mexico City Olympics. Segregationist candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, carrying five states in a presidential election the put Richard Nixon in the White House.
These events have, each in their own way, had a lasting impact on our country. One need only observe the still vacant storefronts in Baltimore to recognize the physical scars of those April 1968 riots. There are emotional scars as well, borne in palpable divisions over the war, racial injustice and the direction of the nation.
In contemplating what messages from 1968 reverberate most profoundly today, I find myself drawn to some brief extemporaneous words spoken on a street corner in Indiana the night of King's murder. Bobby Kennedy had taken his presidential campaign to there and was scheduled that night to speak at a rally in an African-American neighborhood in Indianapolis. When word came of the shooting on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, there were some calls within the campaign to cancel the speech. Indeed, the local police, fearing violence, refused to escort the candidate to the rally site. Kennedy decided to proceed and arrived ahead of the terrible news of what had occurred in Memphis. So, rather than the planned campaign speech, it was left to the candidate to inform the gathering of another American tragedy. Climbing onto the flatbed truck that was provided as his stage, he immediately informed his audience of the "sad news for all of our fellow citizens and for people who love peace all over the world."
As his shocked listeners began to come to grips with the fact that King had been shot and killed, Kennedy proceed to observe that "it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in;" that we could move to a "great polarization" in which we are "filled with hatred toward one another" or we could emulate. King. Then, addressing those "tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust," for the first time in public, he referred to his personal grief from the assassination of President Kennedy, but urged that "we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times." Referring to "my favorite poem," he quoted Aeschylus' observation that "pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom from the awful grace of God."
And then he spoke the words that stand out in my mind in glaringly sharp contrast to the rhetoric that now bombards us daily:
“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 and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country — whether they be white of they be black.”
He ended his remarks urging that we "dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world."
I cannot imagine a politician today even climbing on that flatbed truck in those circumstances, let alone invoking the eloquence of the Greeks in a call for unity and compassion. We are now routinely subjected to a cavalcade of tweeted divisiveness that is derived far more from the Philistines than the Greeks. It is a constant invective from those who profess love for our country while casually expressing contempt for half the people in it, along with little understanding of or appreciation for the institutions that are the foundations of the republic. It has emboldened the intolerant and hateful to the point that the proper discourse necessary to democracy is drowned out by vituperative diatribes. Rather than speaking to, as Lincoln called it, "the better angels of our nature," it preys upon the most vile of human instincts and serves to tear us apart from one another. And there is little sign that leadership is emerging that might inspire us to join in an embrace of the sentiments expressed in those unprepared remarks from a terribly sad night in 1968.
Raymond Daniel Burke (email@example.com), a Baltimore native, is a shareholder in a downtown law firm.