Sunday, April 6, 2008

Forty Years Ago

Against our will comes wisdom by Charlie Leck

It was 40 years ago that Bobby Kennedy broke the news to the black people of Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. Some contemporary historians call that speech one of the finest in the nation's history and rank it with the Gettysburg Address. It was a brilliant ad lib statement of our nation's remorse and loss. While most American cities erupted in violence on that night, Indianapolis remained peaceful and many attribute it to Kennedy's loving and ingenious speech. You can find the speech in many places, but I particularly love this video montage of it. Kennedy quoted Aeschylus on that evening by reciting the following:

"Even in our sleep,
pain, which cannot forget,
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until in our own great despair,
against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God"

A bit over two months later, Bobby Kennedy would be struck down by an assailant's bullet.

Hatred and distrust have gone on long enough in this nation. We, of the older generation, have not been able to gouge out this festering, infected and filthy wound. Our hope is in the hands and the hearts of the young, that they may see the foolishness of it, and the non-productiveness in it, and wash it away with civility and love.


An anonymous reader has commented that Robert Kennedy misquoted Aeschylus that evening and that the word "despair" should have been "despite."  Indeed! Scholars have wrestled with this and some believe that he purposefully misquoted the poem, believing his version was more suitable to the desperate evening. One must also give Kennedy some slack here for he was speaking without notes or manuscript, breaking tragic news to the gathered crowd. He paused a long time before the quotation and, in video clips, one can seem him struggling to remember the words. The reader's comment is not published here because it is the recommendation of the blog community that anonymous comments not be posted. [Chas Leck]

Comment: Chas, I don't think it was purposeful. Kennedy was struggling on that evening to remember the words exactly and he flinched here and there a bit. Thanks for the good blogs. I like the one on the UCC denomination. I'm going to pay a visit to one here in Boston. [Mark Hatter]


  1. The very idea of a contemporary politicians even trying to quote Aeschylus is so extraordinary that it gives us yet another reason to mourn the passing/slaying of men like Bobby K. I think Eugene McCarthy opposed the Vietnam War because of the precedent set by the Greeks' Punic Wars. The amazing thing about classical civilisation is the extent to which it provides counsel against venality and impetuosity in foreign policy that we neglect at our peril. The whole question of NATO enlargement should be discussed against the backdrop of Athens's experiences with the Delian League. There are few roads in this world that someone hasn't already trod, so it doesn't hurt to study their fates.

  2. David, your comments are always welcome here, whether in agreement or disagreement. I appreciate reading what you write in these comments and on your fine blog.
    Charles Leck