As America honors one of our greatest voices for love, compassion, and understanding on Martin Luther King day, while at the same time coming to terms with a president who has channeled a wave of anger, suspicion, and hatred into a successful bid for the White House, I was reminded of a post from a year ago and a message that is sadly relevant for today and the days ahead.
I hope you will forgive a repeat:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
—Aeschylus (525-426 BCE)
I’m in New York this week due to a family emergency. But it feels…different. People on streets and buses are talking about their fears for the future.
The driver of my Uber car from the airport told me how he had come from Sri Lanka and worked three jobs to send money back to support his mother and his family. He used to hope, he said, to bring them all to the US. But now he was glad they had never come here. He wanted his children to go to college in Australia or Europe, or some place where they would be safe.
I had to take my computer in for a repair, so I headed for the Apple store in the new mall at the World Trade Center. The mall was architecturally stunning, but astonishingly empty of people. Instead the halls were patrolled by groups of soldiers wearing armor and carrying automatic weapons—normal, my daughter told me, when the terrorism alerts were at high levels.
On the subway, our car was halted because of a fire on the line ahead. Doors opened, and most people got off after an announcement that all Brooklyn-bound trains were temporarily suspended. I had no idea how else to get back to Brooklyn, so I stayed on. The lady next to me got out a book, and the one across the aisle took out some knitting. On subways, striking up a conversation is taboo. But sitting in the semi-dark, our small group began to talk. The knitter said this kind of thing seemed to be happening more often. The reader shook her head. “Lots of things not working like should.” She said she and her husband ran a small shop selling souvenirs but sent their kids to college. “Good schools but they no get jobs. Selling in shop now, like parents. What happen if they no got the medical?” The knitter nodded her sympathy. She had children and grandchildren, she said, and worried about what would happen to them. Outside the car, we saw soldiers walking down the length of the platform. The knitter pointed to them and said, “They say it was fire on the track? Maybe yes. Maybe not so much.”
The news this morning played snippets of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. I started thinking about other speeches, and the powerful megaphone of those running for the right to lead the United States. For Donald Trump the candidate, that might mean a speech promising to “bomb the shit out of them“. For Donald Trump the president, it might mean denying that he’s a racist—after referring to their “shithole countries”.
But my sister reminded me of another speech by another presidential candidate at a time when people also wondered if we could survive the hatred, mistrust, and violence. It remains one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard.
(63 days after Senator Robert Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck to deliver this speech announcing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King to the people of Indianapolis, he was himself assassinated.)
It was a powerful speech at the time. But resonating against the hatred and rhetoric of today, almost half a century on, it reminds us of the power and hope that can only come from love.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. —Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968