April 4, 1968 dawned with hope in the air.
Less than a month before, anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy had stunned the world by getting 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, nearly beating President Lyndon Johnson.
Four days after that, on March 16, Senator Robert Kennedy announced that he would join the race for the Democratic nomination, calling Johnson's Vietnam policies "disastrous and divisive." Volunteers flocked to the campaigns of both Senators---charged by the prospect of ousting LBJ and ending the war.
The war, of course, proceeded apace. Ironically, the same day that Kennedy made his announcement, U.S. troops under the direction of Lt. William Calley massacred hundreds of unarmed men, women and children at My Lai. And at the end of February General William Westmoreland formally requested that an additional 200,000 troops be sent to Vietnam, lest the war be lost.
At home, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to investigate the causes of riots and violence in the cities the previous summer, issued its recommendations on February 29, saying that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white---separate and unequal." Martin Luther King was in the midst of a Poor People's Campaign for economic justice, and he was traveling back and forth to Memphis to support a garbage workers strike and unionizing effort for better pay and working conditions.
And then, on Sunday, March 31, President Johnson asked the three networks for television time, and as always, we gathered round to watch. Mostly he talked about the war. He didn't mention McCarthy or Kennedy, or King. He didn't mention Westmoreland's demand for more troops, though he did say he was increasing the troops to the "previously authorized level" of 525,000. He announced a halt to some of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, and he held out the prospect somewhere down the road---of peace.
But what seemed most hopeful for the future was the surprise ending of his speech.
With American sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes....Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
And so March ended with the promise of enormous change. At least, it seemed, LBJ would no longer would be president. And that meant that if an anti-war candidate was going to be president it would likely be either Kennedy or McCarthy.
On April 2, McCarthy beat Johnson outright in the Wisconsin primary, where Kennedy was not on the ballot. On April 3, Kennedy met with Johnson, who promised not to interfere with the race, though Kennedy and Johnson both knew that wouldn't be the case. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was eager to get in the race, and he was tethered to Johnson.
One of the first primaries coming up was in Indiana on May 7, and both McCarthy and Kennedy were on the ballot, along with Democratic favorite son Governor Roger Branigan, considered a stalking horse for Humphrey.
Indiana would be a clear chance for primary voters to decide between one of the anti-war candidates or a Johnson stand-in.
On April 4, Kennedy flew to Indianapolis, where he was scheduled speak to a crowd in the inner city that evening. While on the plane, New York Times reporter R.W. Apple informed him that Martin Luther King had just been shot in Memphis. As the plane landed, news came that he was dead.
The Indianapolis police chief advised Kennedy to cancel his speech, but Kennedy declined. He went directly into the city, where a crowd of about a thousand waited---still unaware of what had just happened.
And then he spoke to them:
The next day, he spoke in Cleveland about another kind of violence--- "slower, but just as deadly destructive as the shot, or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference, inaction,and decay...":
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, Capetown, South Africa, June 6,1966
Complete text and audio at this site