On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of former president John F. Kennedy, was on the campaign trail seeking election as President. Kennedy heard about the assassination of King on his way to a speech in Indianapolis, Indiana. In a time before internet and cell phones, information did not travel nearly as quickly as it does today. Robert Kennedy found himself in the position of messenger of the awful news. Despite the fears of his aides that the news might incite violence, Robert Kennedy decided to tell the crowd and give his address. What followed was one of the greatest calls for peace and understanding in our nation’s history.
Have students read or listen to a reading of Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Then have your students listen or read Robert F. Kennedy’s address in Indianapolis and answer the following questions on their own.
- How do you think you’d feel upon hearing of the death of Dr. King in such a public setting?
- What message do you think resonated with the crowd, familiar with Dr. King’s work?
- How are the themes of civil disobedience reflected in Kennedy’s address?
- What modern day issues does this speech make you think of?
When the students are finished, lead your class in a discussion using the following questions as a guide.
- In the wake of the assassination of Dr. King, many cities broke out in violence. One exception was the city of Indianapolis. What themes in Robert Kennedy’s speech do you believe kept the city reasoned and calm?
- King was a strong advocate for civil disobedience in the face of violence. How is Robert Kennedy’s speech consistent with King’s vision?
- This speech was given 47 years ago, but its message is still very relevant today. How do you think Robert Kennedy’s speech would be the similar or different if it was given today in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland?
- How is the approach prescribed by Robert Kennedy in his address beneficial to problem solving in a democratic civil society?