I was a 16 year-old sophomore in high school in Eunice, Louisiana. Five years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. The South had been racked by the Civil Rights Movement as an old order tried desperately to cling to a past that was dead to everyone but themselves. American cities, north and south, burned as the result of riots by blacks and others who demanded freedom rather than more rhetoric about freedom some day.
Protests against the Vietnam War had also begun to spread across the country, as people came to believe that their government had engaged in a long series of lies in order to bog the country down in a war for unclear objectives in a country thousands of miles away.
But, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late afternoon of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.
In those inflamed times, Dr. King's murder had the effect of throwing gasoline on a fire.
That same evening, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd who had not yet learned the news of Dr. King's assassination. He spoke these words:
Ladies And Gentlemen,Contrast those words to what we've heard from our elected leaders in Lafayette in recent months as the debate over naming a major street for Dr. King in Lafayette has been kicked around by the Lafayette Parish Council.
I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
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.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "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."
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 love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love--a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
What is most striking is the complete and utter failure of leadership among all parties in this travesty that more resembles 'professional' wrestling than it does a political debate -- all preening, posing and posturing, with little of real substance ever occurring.
If we do, indeed, get the government we deserve, then we are in a hell of a fix here in Lafayette.