91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Racial tensions today hearken back to RFK assassination in 1968

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry for July 18, 2016

Several weeks ago, I was rushing to a meeting at Wayne State University, distracted and speeding on the freeway. Suddenly, I saw the flashing lights and was soon pulled over by a black policeman, who took my license and registration and went back to his car.

I expected a ticket and points on my record, and I indeed deserved them. But he eventually came back, gave me a warning, and said I had better slow down and be careful.

I was astonished and grateful. But today I am scared.

Not of what might happen to me, but what is happening to our country. After years of incidents of police brutality towards African-Americans, this month, we’ve had two cases of black men murdering police officers in cold blood, apparently as retaliation.

This week, one of our major political parties is going to nominate a candidate for president who has been falsely claiming that some of those protesting the deaths of two black men asked for a moment of silence for the Dallas police killer.

That, in a climate of racial tension among a people armed to the teeth, is the political equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater.

Yesterday, after the police shootings in Baton Rouge became public, Donald Trump wrote on his Facebook page:

“How many law enforcement and people have to die because of a lack of leadership in this country? We demand law and order.”

If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.

I remember what Vietnam did to this country. What%u2019s happening now feels worse.

Suddenly, while listening to all this on the news, I remembered a time when things were different, when another racially motivated killing threatened to tear us apart in the middle of a presidential election. That time, it was the murder of not a police officer, but the most prominent African-American in the nation.

Robert F. Kennedy was advised not to go into the Indianapolis ghetto when word came that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. He didn’t listen. In fact, it was he who told the crowd the awful news, on that night in 1968, long before cell phones.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my heart the same kind of feeling,” he said.

But he added, “What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Scores of cities erupted in violence that night, but not Indianapolis.

Kennedy went on to win the primary there, but exactly two months later, he was shot to death too. One of the last things he told his audience in Indianapolis was that “the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country … want justice for all human beings that abide in this land.”

I wonder if he would still think that was true.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.