June 5, 1968...

The first news story that really stands out as an intense personal memory for me was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Maybe it was because it happened just a few days after my fifth birthday, I don't know. I do have vague recollections of the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier that same year, and as young as I was at the time I was old enough in that instance to understand that something terrible had happened. But it was Bobby's murder that made me, at such a young age, a news watcher.

As I grew older and more socially aware and began studying about both MLK and the Kennedy brothers, I happened upon the text of the speech Bobby gave in Indianapolis on the night King was murdered. A few things about that speech struck me, and have stayed with me over the years.

The first was the way Bobby set aside concerns from his aides and from local police about the reaction of the crowd who had gathered to hear him speak when they learned of MLK's death. That shooting had happened just a short time before and Kennedy learned of it just as he was preparing to speak; most if not all in the audience that night learned about King's death from Kennedy.

And his words in response to their grief and anger are as important to Bobby's legacy as "Ask not what your country can do for you" is to the legacy of his older brother:

"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 to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."

Bobby went on to share what has become one of his his best-remembered remarks: "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 is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

News footage of the time shows that the crowd exploded in applause and enthusiasm response to RFK's remarks, then dispersed quietly. And while there were riots throughout other parts of the nation that terrible night, history shows that Indianapolis remained calm - in no small part because of the impromptu remarks Bobby Kennedy delivered in place of the speech he'd planned to give before learning of King's murder.

And now I look around at everything that's going on today, and wonder what Bobby would have made of it all...

There are some who argue that perhaps we might not be in this place if Bobby Kennedy hadn't been killed. They say the same thing about his brother John. About Martin Luther King Jr. About Abraham Lincoln. The sad truth is, we can only speculate about such things.

I remember the night that Barack Obama was first elected to serve as president. I was proud of America that night. And on the week Obama was sworn into office I even wrote a letter to my sons - which saw print as my newspaper column on Jan. 15, 2009 - in which I tried to explain to Joshua and William just how significant an event this particular presidential inauguration actually was.

I ended that letter by saying, "I can only hope and pray that, as we watch together the events that will unfold in the coming days, you gain some sense of understanding of your particular place in history - and then do everything you can to make the most of it."

On a cold January morning in 2009 I felt a renewed sense of optimism. Today, on a miserably hot June afternoon, that optimism has been replaced by anger, fear, dread, and a growing sense that we may be witnessing the end - not of the world, necessarily, but of the Founding Fathers' grand experiment.

And it makes me want to cry.

(Copyright © 2020 by John Allen Small)