The famous Indianapolis speech, given by Robert F. Kennedy, breaking the news of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (informing a mostly black audience) is a perfect example of the humble,
humanistic speech style of former Presidential candidate. Although short, Kennedy’s words in this speech are profound and lasting, a simple approach which was mastered by this great social thinker. Through rhetorical analysis of this somber speech it is clear that Kennedy was a clever, emotional connected public speaker who used his time at the podium to not only commemorate a life, but also build support for his campaign.
The speech was given the evening of April 4, 1968 during Kennedy’s campaign tour. Kennedy had just arrived in Indianapolis, Indiana when he heard the tragic news of Kings Assassination. Immediately after his plane landed Kennedy was expected to appear publicly to promote his campaign. While the police highly urged Kennedy to skip this stop on his tour because the area was considered to be a dangerous ghetto, Kennedy insisted he reach out to its inhabitants. The sudden, unexpected, and devastating news was the catalyst for an immediate change of agenda as Kennedy would have the difficult task of speaking to a mostly black, very up-beat audience, none of whom were aware of the recent assassination of King. This set the scene for what would be a memorable, reflective, and impromptu memorial speech that has been preserved as a Kennedy trademark.
Because of the spur-of-the-moment nature of this speech, it is hard to categorize. Obviously Kennedy was working on a campaign but the speech, both in content and format, is presented as a special occasion style speech. Kennedy begins by breaking the news of Kings death to his audience (who reaction is horrifying) then quickly brings the attention back to himself by using humanistic, thoughtful language which sets up the rest of his unplanned speech as a tribute of sorts. It was clear that Kennedy was particularly aware of his mostly black audience as he makes every effort to relate to them through sympathy and equality. He never speaks down to them about King but rather speaks as if he were one of them.
Throughout the speech Kennedy stayed calm and collected yet never seemed desensitized (as is so often the case with more modern speakers). You could see through the delivery of his speech and the tone of his voice and language that this was a very serious occasion not to be discussed in a sterile manner but rather through respectful commemoration. He constantly reminds the audience of the goals for King and cleverly connects those goals to his own, further gaining audience respect as a leader and equal individual. An example of this is presented toward the beginning of the speech when Kennedy states “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.” This is beautifully poet and political as it seamlessly and honestly pays tribute to King and his work, while at the same time build momentum for Kennedy’s own work as a Presidential candidate.
While this speech is very eloquent and appears to be crafted, it is important to recognize the atypical circumstances that shape the delivery of the speech. Since it was a unarranged speech the language, while poet and constant, is ultimately informal in terms of a political rally. Kennedy has a very solemn tone of voice that isn’t recognizable as a political quality. This is not at all in appropriate, but rather due to the circumstance very effective as it automatically allows the audience to share these words rather than just receive them. Furthermore Kennedy centers the body of the speech around social injustice, equality, and national division all topics relevant to the life of King, and his own work. It is clear that the audiences fear and devastation quickly turns into a powerful excited energy to continue King’s mission. This displays a certain level of brilliance on the part of Kennedy because it is surely assumed that he new a situation like this could turn to riot and destruction, yet through his smart and personal language he reversed a possible disaster before it could even begin. This genius is displayed when he states “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 own heart the same kind of feeling…But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.
Finally Kennedy ends with a reflective quote from Aeschylus, and once again repeats for the third time “What we need in America” then going on to his quick agenda. This repetition is an affective tool in his speech, especially one as short as this. Again this allows him to stay connected to the theme of a tribute speech while also driving his point into the minds and more importantly the hearts of his audience.
Kennedy not only rose to the occasion but rose above it. He was seamlessly able to honor the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King by connecting King’s life’s dreams to his career and campaign goals. His words were simple and clear (specifically being adjusted to his lower economic class audience) but poetic and profound. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated himself only two months after the night he gave this speech. His words echo through decades and his powerful skills as a social leader and kind nature as a human being as forever sealed within the unforgettable words of this speech.