68

Fifty years ago, I was just a high school kid worrying about things like girls and popularity and Clearasil. But the truth is, as typical and boringly predictable as my life was, 1968 was not an average year to be an American teen.
Death and destruction were the backdrop for 1968. Not just for me, but for my entire generation. The insanity that was Vietnam continued to intensify with each passing week. More and more young men were being drafted and shipped overseas to die in a war that the generals and the White House knew was not winnable. The civil rights movement was riven by serious differences over nonviolence and demonstrations and alliances with white organizations. The generation gap was cleaving families and classrooms and communities. It felt more than a little like we were living in an apocalyptic time because we were.
Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered in 1968. Their deaths tore the fabric of my life like a black keriyah mourning ribbon. I speculated on how it was possible to live in a country so poisoned by hatred and racism. Could it get any worse than this, I wondered?
 I did want to hope for something back then. I wanted to believe that there could be peace in Vietnam. I wanted to believe that black folk and white folk could live in relative harmony. I wanted to believe that there was a way forward. Martin and Bobby both spoke about just that, and I loved them for that. I even wrote a letter to the Kennedy campaign, offering my services to help elect Bobby to become president. The letter was posted a week or so before he won California… just before he was murdered.
Thinking back to those days, I am aware of many things Bobby and Martin shared. Obviously, their politics were very much aligned. They both opposed the war. They both acknowledged the fundamental disparities of American life. They both decried racism in all of its forms. Most of all, they both agreed that compassion and understanding were necessary to heal our sick country. They spoke with eloquence and openheartedness. It was often thrilling to hear them rallying their supporters. But it was also thrilling to hear them offer olive branches to those of disparate opinions. Bobby and Martin believed in hope, that somehow, we could make it happen. They were dreamers, and we were lucky enough to be wrapped up in their dream.
Fifty years later I am old enough to have been Martin’s father – MLK was 39 when he was shot; Bobby was 42. The “if-onlys” are stacked like unread, rejected manuscripts. To imagine a Martin Luther King stewarding us through the 60s, to contemplate a Bobby Kennedy presidency, it’s almost too much. Yes, I know their back stories, their peccadillos, their transgressions, their shortcomings. They were mortal, and not messianic.
I read the news every day. I look at the current level of engagement and the language used in public discourse, the lack of esteem for facts, the malodorous stink of racism and misogyny and the all-around lack of respect for divergent opinions and lifestyles. And I miss Bobby and Martin. I miss what could’ve been. So much lost and squandered.
The night Martin died, Bobby was in Indianapolis. He wanted to go to the heart of the black community there, but the chief of police of Indianapolis said no, he could not guarantee Bobby’s safety. If Kennedy went, he said, he would not send any escorts or bodyguards.
But Bobby went anyway. He spoke to the crowd and urged them to go home, to pray for Martin’s children and his wife. He told them he knew they were angry that a white man had killed Martin. Bobby said that he understood their wrath, because he, too, lost a loved one at the hands of a murderous white man. The crowd did go home, and there were no riots that night in Indianapolis as there were in so many other black city centers.
Bobby concluded his remarks with the following words, words that speak of loss and also future hope for consolation. They are words that, sadly, remind us of the past and also point towards the cloudy present. He said, “My favorite poem was by Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
 
Even in our sleep, 
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.”
Amen, Bobby.
Rest in peace, Martin.

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