One spring evening on the campaign trail almost 50 years ago, Bobby Kennedy stood before a predominantly black audience in Indianapolis, charged with the thankless task of informing them that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
Frustration about police abuse and poverty had boiled over in urban riots over the previous three summers, following waves of official terror as civil rights activists attempted to secure the constitutional guarantees of full citizenship.
“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 said.
Then the presidential candidate and former attorney general directly addressed the most sensitive aspect of the tragedy.
“For those of you who are black, considering the evidence — evidently is that there are white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge,” he continued. “We can move in that direction as a country, and greater polarization. Black people amongst blacks and white amongst whites, filled with hatred towards one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.”
That was April 4, 1968.
In 2015, with another presidential election underway, the nation is again balanced on a razor wire of racial tension surrounding police violence, entrenched poverty and deepening inequality producing the poisonous fruit of profound alienation. Over the past 12 months, in outrageous succession, the names Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and too many others have been added to the rolls of unarmed black men killed by the police, each one in different geographic flashpoint around the country. In April, the scourge manifested in North Charleston, SC, where a white police officer shot and killed Walter Scott.
The response of Jeb Bush, another presidential candidate, as news filtered out on the evening of June 17 that a gunman had massacred nine people in a black church in Charleston, was quite different from Kennedy’s. Bush scrapped plans to appear at the Charleston Maritime Center the following morning, with a statement from the campaign citing “the tragic events unfolding in South Carolina tonight.” The statement included one additional sentence, indicating that the candidate’s “thoughts and prayers” were “with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy.”
The decision to cancel a campaign event in the wake of a tragedy might have sprung from a place of decency, but it also reveals how utterly divorced the rhetoric of campaigning and strategic positioning of the electoral contest is from the gritty specificity of real life. The episodic violence against black people that has been woven into this nation’s history since its founding doesn’t stick to a schedule that takes into consideration electoral campaigns. Of course, nothing any of us might say about the horrific killing of innocent people in a church is adequate to the weight of sorrow felt by their immediate family and friends, and the black community at large. But if politics really matter, shouldn’t politicians at least attempt to speak to what weighs most heavily on human hearts?
Of course, comments by Bush in Charleston on any subject other than the massacre would have come across as callous. If he had chosen to go ahead with his campaign appearance, he could have only spoken about the brutal killing of nine African-American citizens and he could have only spoken honestly and extemporaneously, without poll-testing or focus-grouping his message. Kennedy could well have canceled his appearance in Indianapolis, as his advisors urged him to do, but he took the more risky and courageous route.
There’s an eerie similarly between the assassination of King and the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, described by the Charleston Post and Courier as “the South’s oldest black congregation south of Baltimore.” Not only is the political polarization and social upheaval of our day a reverberating echo of the ’60s, but last week’s attack struck at the heart of the state’s black leadership, taking the life of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinkney and Cynthia Hurd, who was the sister of former North Carolina state Sen. Malcolm Graham.
Admittedly, Bush is not Kennedy. The latter was a Democratic politician who was speaking to a predominantly black audience. Positioning himself for the South Carolina primary, Bush would have been speaking to a predominantly white audience.
All the more reason why it could have been a powerful speech. How rich it is that Bush was preparing to visit the state whose dominant political figure for a half-century was the late Strom Thurmond, who led the defection of white conservatives from the Democratic Party as a backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement and who helped the Republican Party craft the Southern Strategy to create a new electoral majority.
The homicidal violence of an individual like Dylann Roof, who reportedly wore white-supremacist flags as patches on his jacket and drove a car with a Confederate flag license plate, is an expression of white backlash in the extreme; it represents a reaction against a growing challenge to white domination. The backlash has been nourished for decades by politicians making coded appeals to white voters through attacks on welfare, references to “law and order” (or the more up-to-date “public safety”) or disparaging the war on poverty, as Bush did in his May 1 visit to Raleigh.
Almost 50 years after the Southern Strategy was set in motion by the GOP, Bush might have spoken frankly to his white supporters. In his heart, he probably wanted to.
“My set of values believes that the most vulnerable in our society should be in the front of the line, not the back of the line,” Bush said during his speech at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit in April. “And Republicans, I think, do better when we show our consciousness to do the exact same thing, whether it’s the developmentally disabled or the child-welfare system or the people who are struggling, we should give them our attention and help and reform the systems to make sure they have a better chance to rise up.”
Judging by his words, Bush seems to want to be a president of reconciliation and constructive action.
If he had chosen to speak in Charleston on June 19, he could have mentioned that the GOP is the party of Lincoln and emancipation, that the party can be justifiably proud in contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He should have then said that too often since then the GOP has been a source of division and distrust in American politics. It’s time, he might have said, for conservative leaders and their white constituencies to put aside old enmities and recognize that black people have legitimate grievances against police repression, mass incarceration and economic policies that contribute to high unemployment.
In conclusion, Bush could have rallied his supporters by saying that only when people of good will put aside party differences and work with people of all races can America hope to rebuild a prosperous economy with opportunity for all, and create a world-class education system that truly allows our children to fulfill their potential.
Silence is its own statement.
It speaks volumes about the moral vacuum in our national politics.