Now we come to the best part of the year, when the nights are crisp and cool and the days sparkle with the tender green promise of renewal and growth.
It is the final breath of spring – lilac season. The flowers burst forth from their annual hibernation and glow pale lavender and lift their glorious perfumed incense through the sweet air.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” remembered a spring before the unimaginable death of Lincoln. We remember a spring just a year ago, when our troubles seemed huge but now seem almost pale – the color of lilacs gone dead – in comparison.
And yet … has any time been trouble-free?
It seemed so to me, in the spring of 1967. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois’ “Circle” campus in Chicago, blissfully carefree and purposefully apolitical, intent mostly on meeting girls, going to parties and, given my rotten grades, avoiding the draft. One afternoon I wandered idly into a campus “teach-in.” Activist and author Sidney Lens was speaking out against the war in Vietnam. I walked out two hours later, radicalized by the toll of bombs and body bags.
Flash ahead a few months and Robert Kennedy was in Chicago, and my friend Ed Kiersh and I had heard he would be appearing at Northeastern Illinois University. We traveled there to meet him and sure enough, as he drove up on campus and emerged from an auto, we walked up and shook his hand. Even though it would be another year before he announced his candidacy for the presidency, we wished him well and hoisted a large handmade sign we had made, “RFK not LBJ in ’68.”
“Boys, boys, don’t you think you ought to put that down?” blubbered Roman Pucinski, the silver-maned, fat-lipped Chicago alderman, a mainstay of the City Council establishment, who tried to hustle us away. “Hell no!” we gleefully shouted, except the words were spectacularly more vulgar, and the alderman slunk off.
Flash ahead almost a year, to the night of April 4, 1968, and Senator Kennedy was making a campaign speech to a largely black audience in Indianapolis. You can watch it on YouTube. “Have they heard about Martin Luther King yet?” he asked someone from the podium. Some people evidently had not. He announced to the stunned crowd that Dr. King had been assassinated. The Senator then put away his prepared remarks and, remarkably, extemporized:
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black – considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization – black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’
“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 or lawlessness; but 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 they be black.
“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
“But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
“…[I]t was like the laying on of hands,” wrote Mary Evans, who was in the audience that night. “Every word out of his mouth was a balm. The whole crowd was swept up in the emotion.”
Sixty-three days later, Senator Kennedy too was dead from an assassin’s bullet.
We mourn the loss of greatness in this country and pray for a time when greatness returns, as it must and as it will, for we love this country, as Robert F. Kennedy did, and we believe, as Martin Luther King did, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.
Goodness, mercy, peace and justice will be renewed, like the lilacs in spring, blooming again and – hopefully – lasting.