analysis of robert f kennedys speech

Analysis of Robert F Kennedy’s Speech


It was 4th April 1968, one of the most tragic days in the history of America when Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, revealed the sad news of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to the vast gathering of African Americans at Indianapolis, Indiana. This gathering was early deemed to be an election rally but after hearing the news of Martin Luther King’s death, it became the most heart rendering moment as Kennedy stood at the platform facing the crowd to deliver the sad news to the public. It was the most powerful and simple speech and became an example of the grandiose form in the world of politics but with the greatest tenacity and healing power. It was also marked by yet another saddest moment in the history of America as it was an end of one era and a beginning of another with the emergence of another section of the society in the form of marketing personnel, pollsters and consultants who with the politicians brought in more of practicality in the lives of American citizens.

Historical Background
Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for presidentship on 16th March 1968 proclaiming that, “I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies.” (Straw, Online) Soon after this on 28th March, he arrived at Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis to file his nomination for the presidential candidate in the Indiana primary. After three days at 9:00 p.m., President Lyndon Johnson gave his surprising remark in his speech on television as he spoke about the Vietnam War. He said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” (Straw, Online) On 3rd April, a meeting was held between Johnson and Kennedy at the White House, the day before Kennedy arrived at Muncie. So when on 4th April, Robert F. Kennedy landed at Indiana airport to begin his campaigning, the political scenario was totally changed. At this juncture, bombardment of Vietnam was stopped temporarily, Johnson had taken off his name as a candidate for presidentship, and so no possibility was left to make Vietnam as a topic of political campaign, instead of Johnson, now Eugene McCarthy got a chance to become a candidate garnering 56 per cent of the votes at Wisconsin and with the withdrawal of Johnson, there was every chance for Vice President Hubert Humphrey to put his name for Presidency.

At the backdrop of this hot political scenario, Robert Kennedy first delivered speech at Notre Dame in the morning and then at Muncie to take his political campaign further. Before flying to Indianapolis, he got the news of Martin Luther King being shot and as soon as he arrived at Indianapolis, he received agonizing the news of his death. In-spite of the warning by the police on the possibility of the riots and the risk to his life, he was adamant and reached amidst the full gathering of African Americans. He noticed people were in great mood, and were extremely excited at his visit. He was quick to judge that people were unaware of the news of the assassination, so he stepped on the platform, and delivered the excruciating news to the people. Both the Mankewicz and speechwriter Adam Walinsky had created draft notes soon before the rally for his political motive but Kennedy refused their speech and instead using certain striking words he had himself written on the plane, he captured the nerves of his audience. (Klein, 3, 4) He stood with a stern face on a podium on flatbed truck, and spoke for complete four minutes and fifty-seven seconds. (Klein, 1, 4)

Goals of the Speaker
Goal of the Speaker now became his eulogy towards Martine Luther King and his desire to make people relish his ideologies to their heart and not just to cry or wail at his death or take revenge. It was his intellectual capacity that could make him stand amidst the crowd that too predominantly black. His speech was filled with great empathy for the audience and showed his anger on the assassination of the King. The death of the King came as sudden shock and was beyond anybody’s expectations and now one of the most important aspects in all this was the audiences outlook of hearing the reason behind this assassination in the Kennedy’s speech. At this juncture, Kennedy’s skill began to show itself as he neither went to all the reasons and causes behind the assassination nor he pointed his fingers against any body but he raised the note of optimism in the hearts and minds of the people. He showed the people the way to make the King’s ideologies to come true. People should take on the fight of the King from the point where he stopped and continue till all the goals and ideas he most cherished do not come out to be true. He said it was quite natural on our part to have a feeling of hatred towards the whites but that feeling should come in his heart too as his brother’s killer was also a white man; instead of brooding over what we had lost we should strive for what we could gain. These remarks filled Kennedy’s aides with surprise, who never before heard him spoke of his brother’s death. (Klein, 6) Kennedy said that nation had to pass over these difficult times by quoting Aeschylus poem, “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.” (Kennedy, Online) Nation demands that blacks and whites should get united, Kennedy retorted.

Rhetorical Barriers
It was a very crucial and the most sensitive moment at the time when Kennedy was delivering his speech. The news of Martin King’s assassination could raise anguish and anger among the crowd that could lead to terrible riots and even his own death. As soon as the news was delivered, there were terrible screams and wailings in the crowd and most instinctive sounds of human souls feeling terrible pain. (Klein, Online) There was every chance for the people to get savage and take to violence. The audience that had gathered to support Kennedy could go to the extent of extinguish him alone as their protest against the whites, as these were whites who had all along been responsible for their deplorable condition and plight. They could have easily shown their anger at Kennedy as he was also representative of whites and they were expecting that he would tell them about the reasons of King’s assassination and the persons involved in his assassination but quite contrary happened. When Kennedy started speaking, whole audience kept poised and silent as he not only felt the crowd’s pain but also shared it. (Klein, Online)

Rhetorical Strategies
The words Kennedy used had a deep and profound effect on his audience. He used very simple language and clearly showed him as a great social intellect. If rhetorical analysis is done on his speech, we can make out that he has made all the efforts to get himself emotionally connected with the people. He cleverly made people feel that their pains were his pains too and their loss was his loss and loss of the whole nation; and now this was not the time to grieve, but a time to think again. Through out the speech, Kennedy maintained his cool and spoke in a very respectful and dignified manner. In the beginning of the speech only, he praised Martin Luther King, when he said, “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.” (Kennedy, Online) These remarks showed seamlessly and depth of his political strategy and his commitment. He paid tribute to the King and at the same time laid a ground for his presidential candidature. The speech is very informal in tone and a sense of solemnity gets reflected in the words, and not even in a single moment, one can feel that the speech was politically motivated instead he centered his speech on the King and his goals and what he most cherished for. This had a lot of impact on audience as now their reactions were more seen towards following the King’s zeal. He made them understand it was not the love for own cast or color King lived and died but he lived for the nation and died for the nation and every nation should strive for the same. “So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.” (Kennedy, Online)

In the end Kennedy once again repeated, “What we need in United States” then moved ahead with his aim. The repeated words act as the most effective tool in a speech, which made him to remain, bridged with the theme of the tribute speech and more importantly drove his points in the minds of his listeners. He not only got into the top but also rose above everybody else and left such an emotional impact in the hearts of the people that no body could forget his words in the years to come.

His speech was considered as a most motivating, persuasive and inspirational speech showing his grip over orientation. It had so much impact on the people that at the moment where at many places people took to rioting, Indianapolis remained a calm place. (, Online) It has been considered as the 17th among the “American Rhetoric’s Top100 Speeches” in   the historic 20th century. (Eidenmuller, Online) According to Journalist Joe Klein it is “politics in its grandest form and highest purpose,” (Online) and was the marking point of the end of one era and the beginning of the other. (Klein, Online)

The speech by Kennedy was considered as one of the most influential speeches in the history of America. Delivered at the occasion of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it marked the beginning of the new era and created his special place in the hearts of the black audience. At the most sensitive moment, Kennedy made the people realize the importance of following on the path shown by King and not just indulging in violence and showing anguish. The need of the hour was to show solidarity and equality not only between themselves but also between all blacks and whites. This speech was no doubt a great success because Kennedy showed his solidarity and empathy towards the blacks. He showed himself close to them by heart and connected towards them by revealing that even his own brother was killed by a white. If he had not shown this, there would have been riots at Indianapolis too. He said it was not an issue between the white and blacks but an issue of ideologies, equality, brotherhood and nonviolence that King was fighting for and this was a need of the hour and a call of the nation.

Works Cited

Eidenmuller, Michael E. “American Rhetoric’s Top100 Speeches.” Internet. Available:, April 19, 2008. “MLK Honored on 40th Anniversary of Assassination” Internet (2008) Available:,2933,346330,00.html, April 19, 2008.

Kennedy, Robert F. “On the Death of Martin Luther King.” Internet. Available:, April 19, 2008.

Klein, Joe. “Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid.” New York: Doubleday, 2006.

Klein, Joe. “Pssst! Who’s behind the decline of politics? [Consultants.]” Internet (2006) Available:,9565,1181593,00.html, April 19, 2009

Straw, John B. “RFK in Middletown: Robert Kennedy’s Speech at Ball State University on April 4, 1968.” Internet (2004) Available:,,25861–,00.html, April 19, 2009

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