President Barack Obama delivers a speech during a memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on July 12, 2016.
Bilgin S. Sasmaz—Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
July 19, 2016

In an open letter to America’s law enforcement community on Monday, President Obama praised the way in which police officers “put others’ safety before [their] own, and…remind us that loving our country means loving one another”— even in a time of deep divisions. In addressing those divisions, Obama turned to words spoken nearly a half-century ago by Robert F. Kennedy: he “lamented in the wake of unjust violence a country in which we look at our neighbors as people ‘with whom we share a city, but not a community,'” the president said.

Though the President did not elaborate on the context of that RFK speech, the “unjust violence” Obama mentioned was one of the most significant such acts in American history.

The speech in question was delivered on April 5, 1968, to the Cleveland City Club by the man who was, at the time, a Senator from New York and a major candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Just days before Kennedy spoke in Cleveland, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson had announced that he would not seek reelection, giving a further boost to Kennedy’s prospects. But, just the day before, on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.

It was thus, Kennedy said, not a time to stump for the nomination.

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

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And, in that context, Kennedy turned away from his hopes for the White House to share his ideas about American violence — which, in his speech, encompassed a wide range of bloodshed: riots in American cities; killings that took place “in the name of the law”; civilian deaths in foreign lands, which triggered only numbness from the American public; fictional bloodshed on television; the sniper’s bullet that had killed a civil-rights leader in cold blood. But, he said, that wasn’t all:

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Kennedy proposed no specific programs to address those problems, but made it clear that he believed it was time for the government and the people both to act to “achieve true justice among our fellow citizens.”

Whether a Kennedy administration might have achieved more specific steps toward that goal would never be revealed. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated about two months after delivering that speech.

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