Why?

There was nearly a murder a day in my adopted city of Baltimore in 2019; the official total being 348. The casualties in this ongoing, undeclared, and pointless war fell once again most heavily on African-American families. We are a very long way from “the dream” well intentioned pundits glibly invoke each Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend as if sentimentality were enough to stanch the bleeding. The “post-racial society” heralded by some after Barack Obama’s election was, it seems, no more than wishful thinking.

Political responses to Baltimore’s urban carnage have lately ranged from hand wringing and blame passing to proposals for quick technological fixes. Washington’s approach of late has been notable for social media insults and legislative inaction. Grass-roots efforts, like the city-wide ceasefire campaign held one weekend every three months, lead to modest short-term gains that quickly unravel. While the problem here is extreme, it’s by no means unique. If and when Baltimore’s body count begins to fall, another American city will take its place.

It’s easy enough to list some of the many, intertwined roots of this catastrophe: the failed war on drugs, the wages of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, the unhealed wounds of neighborhood redlining, the American love affair with lethal violence and the tools of death, dysfunctional and neglected mental health and social service bureaucracies, continued flight to the suburbs, corruption, and so on. Feel free to add your own candidates for inclusion in this litany of communal failures.

I’m not here to propose policies or stir the partisan pot. What now passes for political discourse in this country is ugly enough without my help. I am, however, just old enough to barely remember another time of great division and distress that might inform ours. In 1968, as a suburban white boy in grade school, I was just beginning to gain some social and political awareness. I remember climbing into the back seat of the family Oldsmobile the morning of April the fifth and hearing of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis the previous evening. The day was chilly and my mother and I were wearing heavy coats, but there was an extra heaviness in her voice that morning. She hadn’t been fond of Dr. King or his tactics, but she was visibly distressed.

Not until many years later, however, did I hear a recording of the short address then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy made on April the fifth at the Cleveland City Club. Kennedy, who had delivered the terrible news the night before to a largely black audience in Indianapolis, was no longer the naïve establishment front man he’d been at his disastrous 1963 meeting with James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, and other civil rights advocates.

He had matured in the intervening five years and his understanding of race, class, and poverty had grown larger, deeper, and more complex. By then, he had listened to voices from the inner city, Appalachia, and the California grape fields. He had, of course, lost a brother to gun violence. In another two months, he would be shot and killed himself, while exiting the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the South Dakota and California Democratic Party primary elections on the fifth of June.

When I, more than a decade later, first heard a recording of his Cleveland speech, I was struck as much by the cadences and audible distress in his presentation as by his words. The written text of his address can’t begin to capture that power. Here, though, is how he began:

This is a time of shame and a time of sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why?

I think of those words whenever the pastor of my church reads aloud the names and ages of those murdered in my city in the preceding two weeks. I think of them again each year on this long weekend in January that passes without any visible progress toward answering Kennedy’s haunting question. I think of them each year on the fourth of April and the fifth of June.

Other good and decent men and women have held high office in this country in the past half century. On the cusp of a highly partisan impeachment trial, however, I wonder what it would be like to hear such a voice from a political figure – in any party – today.

I’m aware that invoking a wealthy white man’s words on the day marked to celebrate a black minister and civil rights leader is problematic. This weekend is first and foremost a time to find renewed strength in the actions and words of Dr. King. So, let me be clear. I encourage you to march, sing, and celebrate King’s birthday as you see fit. I invite you to read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail or watch a film like Selma or Four Little Girls. I ask you to ponder how, in the year ahead, you might help to make Dr. King’s dream something more than a sentimental abstraction.

If time permits, though, I also invite you to listen to Robert Kennedy’s address on the day after Dr. King was murdered. or at least read the text from which Kennedy spoke.

Where are those voices today? Where can they be heard?

Photo credit: Abby Rowe National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston