On the shooting of Robert Kennedy
Is it not time to take a long look at ourselves, at the way we live and the way we think, and to face the fact that the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts, that with all our accomplishments, our spires and mines and clean, glistening packages, our charities and gods, we are what were-a people of violence?
Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers-plus the line going into a sad infinity of lynched men, of men beaten to death in police cells, of Indians expropriated by knife and gun, of the Negro people held in slavery for a century by a thousand small armies dubbed chivalrous by themselves who long ago enchained black labr and kept black mankind from walking in freedom-Robert Kennedy's brain received only the latest fragment of a barrage as old as this country.
Here is a Congress literally face to face with an army of poor people pleading for some relief of their misery-a Congress whose reply is a sneer, a smirk and a warning to keep order.
Here is a people that would rather clutch hatred to its heart than stretch out a hand in brotherhood to the black man and the poor man. That is why there is violence. It is murderous to tell a man he cannot live where he wishes to live. It is murderous to tell a woman that because she has borne a child out of wedlock that she cannot eat, nor the child either.
There is violence because we have daily honored violence. Any half-educated man in a good suit can make his fortune by concocting a television show whose brutality is photographed in sufficiently monstrous detail. Who produces these shows, who pays to sponsor them, who is honored for acting in them? Are these people delinquent psychopaths slinking along tenement streets? No, they are the pillars of society, our honored men, our exemplars of success and social attainment.
We must begin to feel the shame and contrition we have earned before we can begin to sensibly construct a peaceful society, let alone a peaceful world. A country where people cannot walk safely in their own streets has not earned the right to tell any other people how to govern itself, let alone to bomb and burn that people.
What must be done? A decent humility, not cynicism. Our best cards are finally being called. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, wrote the promise he could not keep himself and we must now keep it. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The pursuit of happiness is impossible for millions of Americans.
Let us take the thirty billion from the war, and let us devote the same energy and ingenuity we have given to war and apply it to wiping out the disgrace of poverty in this richest of all nations. Let us feel that disgrace, let us feel it for what it is, a personal affront to each of us that cannot be permitted to stand.
We are two hundred millions now. Either we begin to construct a civilization, which means a common consciousness of social responsibility, or the predator within us will devour us all.
It must be faced now that we are afraid of the Negro because we have denied him social justice and we do not know how to stop denying him.
We are afraid of the poor because we know that there is enough to go around, that we have not made it our first order of business to literally create the jobs that can and must be created.
We are afraid of other countries because we fear that they know better how to satisfy the demands of poor people and colored people.
We are afraid of ourselves because we have advertised and promoted and sloganized ourselves into a state of contentment, when we know that desperate people surround us everywhere and we do not know how to break out of our contentment.
We are at war not only with Vietnamese but with Americans. Stop both. We are rich enough to wipe out every slum and to open a world of hope to the poor. What keeps us? Do we want peace in Vietnam? Then make peace. Do we want hope in our cities and towns? Then stop denying any man his birthright.
Because America has been bigger on promises than any other country, she must be bigger by far on deliveries. Maybe we have only one promise left in the bag, the promise of social justice for every man regardless of his color or condition.
Between the promise and its denial-there stands the man with the gun. Between the promise and its denial stands a man holding them apart-the American. Either he recognizes what he is doing, or he will take the final, fatal step to suppress the violence he has called up.
Only justice will overcome the nightmare. The American Dream is ours to evoke.
New York Times, June 8, 1968