I was driving a taxicab in New York City on the fourth of April, 1968, when a passenger told me that King had been gunned down on a balcony in Memphis. I remember feeling a wave of nausea. If there were people out there willing and able to kill our most visionary political and religious leaders, what did that say about the future of democracy? I drove up to Harlem and began giving people rides for free, my meter off. For a brief time that evening, everything seemed almost thrillingly clear: For all of us there was now a common enemy. Murderous racism had shown its face, and I could help beat the enemy by demonstrating my solidarity, as a white man, with my black neighbors. Then an off-duty police detective jumped into the front seat of my cab and ordered me to drive him to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. By the time we arrived, a small riot was in bloom. After I let the detective out, a group of young people splintered off from the crowd and stormed my cab, pelting it with bottles. I ducked low behind the steering wheel and ran red lights as I sped away.
That same evening, exactly two months before he was gunned down himself, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, on a presidential-campaign stop in Indianapolis, addressed a crowd of mostly black inner-city residents. He told them that he, too, had lost a brother to a white man’s bullet. He quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus in an attempt to universalize the suffering and pain, and he suggested that everyone go home and pray. Riots shook more than a hundred American cities that night, but not Indianapolis.
I had worked as an advance man for Bobby Kennedy during his 1964 U.S. Senate race. President Kennedy had been assassinated in his motorcade in Dallas nine months earlier, but that did not deter Bobby from riding slowly in open convertibles along avenues and side streets all over New York State. I was sometimes obliged to ride with him, hanging on to his belt from behind while he leaned into the crowd to shake hands. At other times I would walk along beside the car to protect people from being run over.
In Buffalo, when our campaign coincided for a day with that of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the head of the president’s Secret Service detail asked me what kind of security we were traveling with for Bobby. He blanched when I told him that all we had was an on-leave New York City police detective armed with a .38 caliber pistol.
“I think I should tell you,” he said, “that all the people we’ve rounded up seem to be after your candidate — not the president.”
“All the people?” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered, “they’re coming out of the woodwork. We just caught some guy with a rifle lying in the high grass along the thruway.”
It must have taken an iron will (the word courage doesn’t entirely explain it; nor does the phrase death wish) for Bobby Kennedy to ride in an open motorcade and wade into crowds of admirers. He knew the risk. But he took seriously (and had copied into his notebook) Albert Camus’s admonition that “to know your own death is nothing.” In the early hours of June 5, 1968, about thirty seconds after a .22 caliber bullet lodged in Bobby’s brain — and only a few seconds before he lost consciousness for good — he lay on the kitchen floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, looking up at his wife, Ethel, who cradled his bleeding head in her hands.
“Is everyone else all right?” he asked.
As I write these words, news drifts in through my window from a neighbor’s radio that President George W. Bush plans to visit a training center for border-security guards in Texas today — another of his prepackaged appearances in front of government employees, calculated to strengthen his political base. When was the last time a political figure thought about anyone but himself and his party? And what is the consequence of this self-serving political charade? Perhaps it can be discerned in American democracy’s great shadow, which we have now projected onto Iraq: civil war.
to subscribers in our print edition.
Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free. Subscribe to The Sun and save 45%.