Pain Which Cannot Forget

Even 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

—Robert F. Kennedy, quoting Aeschylus

When the news bulletin flashed onto the television screen forty years ago tonight, the announcer said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed.

I had never heard Martin Luther King referred to as “Junior” before, and for a few minutes, I thought, “Maybe it’s not him.” But it was him.

If you’re young enough, you might imagine that the whole country joined in mourning the loss of our greatest civil rights leader. But to many Americans, King was nothing but a trouble-maker.

A high school friend asked, “If he was so non-violent, how come there were riots everywhere he went?” The violence was usually started by whites, sometimes by white police and officials, but that was irrelevant — “It’s his fault because he oughtta know that whites aren’t gonna take this sitting down.”

After King’s funeral, I heard a man I knew complain that Robert Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, should be ashamed of himself for attending the funeral.

Time deceives us. It smooths over the ragged edges; it erases the sweat and struggle; it papers over the hatred; it replaces bravery with mythology. We forget that, throughout history, every advance of liberty and human dignity has had to be won against fierce, fiery and often violent opposition. It was true forty years ago, and it’s true today.

On the night Dr. King was murdered, Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a mostly black audience at a campaign rally in Indianapolis. This is what he said: