She stood on sacred ground.
Some years ago, when my daughter was little, I was asked to speak at Kennedy-King Park, close to the spot where Robert F. Kennedy offered solace to a shattered crowd and nation on April 4, 1968, the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
This was early in the post-9/11 era and our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was the executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union then.
My wife was battling a bug. Our daughter was a toddler and our son an infant. It didn’t seem fair to leave my ailing bride with two small children to care for while I went to talk, so I brought my little girl with me.
As we drove down, I told her she had to be very good. I tried to explain that we were going to an important place, a special place where a good man had tried to make sense of something bad that had happened to another good man.
And to our country.
She listened, and then asked me if I knew the men.
I told her no, but, in a way, that wasn’t true. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had hovered over my childhood from the time I was her age. They both were a summons and a challenge to young Americans of that time.
When we got to the park, I stood before a microphone stand and the crowd, my daughter in front of me, my hands on her shoulders to provide reassurance that I was there, that we were together. She stood stock-still as I spoke, never fidgeting or fussing. At one point, she reached up to clasp my hands with her small ones.
That talk became one of her earliest memories. She recalls, she says, seeing the faces of the people in the crowd as they listened and the feel of my hands on her shoulders, the sense that she and her father were somewhere important together.
What I remember is how good she was – and how remarkable it was that even a child as young as she was could intuit the significance of a place and a moment.
I don’t remember what I said that day. The only thing I recall is that I wanted to honor what I thought was the subtext of Kennedy’s remarks.
We focus now on the placating nature of that speech, the comfort he offered to millions of grieving Americans. Accompanying the balm, though, was a charge, a reminder that, in a free country, we all have a moral responsibility to make this nation what we wish it to be, what it should be, even when things are difficult.
And that exercising one’s conscience might be important in easy days, but it was essential when the times are hard, and sorrows come often.
When RFK said, echoing the Greeks, that we needed to rededicate ourselves to taming the savageness of man and making gentle the life of the world, he wasn’t talking about other people. He was talking about us.
He said it was our duty.
That message was valid then.
It is valid now.
And it will be valid a thousand years from now.
I didn’t match Kennedy’s eloquence, of course. But that doesn’t matter.
The point of homage isn’t to compete. It is to honor.
It has been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. died and Robert F. Kennedy delivered the only words appropriate to mark that tragedy. It has been more than 15 years since my daughter and I stood before that microphone and that crowd at Kennedy-King Park.
My daughter is a college student now.
She doesn’t remember what her father said all those years ago.
But she knows what Robert Kennedy said and what he meant, what the death of Martin Luther King meant. She knows the duty she owes to herself and her country as a free woman, a free person, in a free nation.
She knows she stood and must continue to stand on sacred ground.
And that’s what matters.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.