For the second in my series of posts about great speeches in history, I turn to President Kennedy’s brother and US Attornery General, Senator and Presidential Candidate, Robert Kennedy.
This speech – given with only a few notes which he didn’t look at and without a prepared text – is one of the most stunning I have ever heard. It was delivered on 4 April 1968, just a short time after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Senator Kennedy was in Indianapolis and was due to give a campaign speech. Instead, he told the assembled crowd the news about Martin Luther King. You can hear on this recording that only just before he starts speaking does he find out that the crowd does not know the news.
This speech – like President Kennedy’s Inaugural – is extraordinary in part because of the circumstances in which it was delivered but it also carries some of the same rhetorical qualities. Like all great speeches, they both have a strong theme – Senator Kennedy’s is one of compassion – President Kennedy’s one of duty. They both make strong use of juxtaposition – placing good alongside evil; hope alongside despair; hate alongside love; division with togetherness.
Above all, they both possess a great sense – of what in classic rhetorical teachings would be called ‘decorum’ – they both fit the circumstances and occasion. They both capture the moment perfectly. They strike the right tone; they are perfect in length and paint a picture the listener can relate to. They do that using simple language but also by drawing on great ideals and words of the past to give the speech a historic and classic litery quality.
This speech is ultimately an extraordinary example of how a few words, spoken to a crowd, can make people feel better and start to heal their wounds. Across the US that night most major cities were hit by riots and violence but not Indianapolis. This impromptu, heartfelt, compassionate speech – delivered from the back of a flatback truck – played a major role in keeping the peace that night.
The photograph above was taken that night – it included in another great book by Thurston Clarke – The Last Campaign.