Opinion: A time when ties did bind

Atlanta helped show a divided nation how to endure the tragedy and shocks of 1968.

Another sad remembrance of an eventful year occurred last week with the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.

RFK’s murder was the third systemic-shock-by-murder delivered to the American way of democracy in less than five years, starting with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. A half-century later, the June 5 date of his brother Bobby’s death still falls disturbingly close to the April 4, 1968 assassination of Atlanta’s own Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As Americans and especially as Atlantans, it is only right for us to remember Bobby Kennedy’s death and what that represented good and bad about the American experiment and its enduring strength during a stormy year. Bonds were stress-tested then, as were ideals at the very core of this republic.

Yet the nation endured. Good people, shared ideals and strong relationships helped guide Americans across national turbulence.

As often happened during that era, Atlanta’s leaders were where the action was and set an example for the rest of the nation and state to follow. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s archives contain a handwritten note written by Bobby Kennedy to Constitution Editor Ralph McGill, who was not at the newspaper when RFK stopped by one day.

And it was the relationship of Atlanta’s King and the Eastern seaboard’s Kennedy families that helped erect an effective counterweight to the divisive energy rattling the country.

Bobby Kennedy and his clan solidly supported the King family after MLK’s assassination. Kennedy famously announced King’s death to a gathering of African Americans in Indianapolis. The Smithsonian magazine last April described how that unfolded: “Clutching scribbled notes made in his car, RFK began simply: ‘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.’ Gasps and shrieks met his words. ‘Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and 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.’

“Kennedy knew King’s death would generate bitterness and calls for vengeance: ‘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,’ he said. ‘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.’ ”

Two months later, he too was dead. News of his murder in a hotel pantry led Coretta Scott King to travel to Los Angeles to support the Kennedys. “It was a very easy decision for me to make,” she later said.

A Washington Post narrative about the flight that brought Kennedy’s body back to New York noted an extraordinary gathering onboard. “Midway down the aisle, America’s three most famous widows were conversing. They spoke only briefly, maybe five or 10 minutes. But they were there, together. Then, for the next 4 ½ hours, Ethel Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King shared a flight over their grieving, wounded, troubled country.”

America then was rattled by domestic divisions and a costly, far-away war. We are in a similar place today.

But in 1968, a nation’s leaders and its people each showed that it was possible to look past resentments and discord to grieve and recognize a common loss.

Bobby Kennedy’s detractor, President Lyndon Johnson, dispatched Air Force One to bring the slain politician’s remains and family back to New York City.

Landmark crowds of all races gathered trackside as RFK’s funeral train rolled slowly from New York to Washington. A crowd estimated at 20,000 sang a hymn at Philadelphia’s railroad station.

It was a different age then, one that saw the likes of Republican soon-to-be President Richard M. Nixon visit Atlanta two days after MLK’s assassination to pay his respects at the King family home.

Common ground, however fleeting, was easier to attain then, it seems. Simple decency and empathy now seem in much-greater supply in 1968 than they are today.

We should change that. We’ll be the worse for it as a nation until we learn how to reclaim some of the old ties that should bind us to each other.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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