On the night of April 4, 1968, wearing his late brother John’s black overcoat, Robert F. Kennedy stepped onto the back of a flatbed truck and delivered one of the most consequential speeches of the century. Just hours earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., and Kennedy’s predominantly Black audience in Indianapolis hadn’t yet heard the news. Kennedy’s aides worried a riot would start, and the chief of police warned that his officers couldn’t provide adequate protection if violence broke out. Kennedy was undeterred.
As Kennedy began speaking, his audience wailed after he told them MLK was killed. Kennedy paused and then responded with the grace that the gravity of the moment demanded. He was at his best when his best was required. RFK acknowledged the anger, shock, and pain that the crowd felt. He shared his own feelings of grief following the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, four and a half years prior.
RFK then famously said: “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 is 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 whether they be Black.”
That night across the United States, more than 100 riots erupted. But there was no riot in Indianapolis. The city was calm.
Even in the wake of bloodshed, Kennedy’s message of peace and unity resonated with those who listened. Fittingly, it was the same message MLK had powerfully preached so many times before. Among his gems of wisdom, King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In another speech, King added: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
This April will mark 55 years since King was killed and Robert Kennedy, who himself would be shot to death almost exactly two months later, consoled the crowd. As educators, we know the boat MLK spoke about has only gotten bigger and the waves around it more dangerous. In a time that demands our best, what are we doing to honor the legacies of these two men? How do we get a message of unity to resonate in our schools and in our world? Not through a fleeting sprint but a lasting and committed journey. MLK told us: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means, keep moving forward.”
Notice, King didn’t say if you can’t run, call an Uber. He didn’t say if you can’t walk, hit the snooze button. King invited us to do all we can—not all we feel like doing and not all we want to do. We should do all we’re capable of—which is often more than we realize.
Our compass must be pointed to three things that King stood for: service, standards, and sacrifice.
The bridge to a more peaceful and unified society starts with each of us as individuals. It is our duty—no matter our role in education—to be the change we want to see in the world for our students. We must, as RFK shared that April night, “make an effort to understand and comprehend.” To do this, our compass must be pointed to three things that King stood for: service, standards, and sacrifice.
King once stated that “life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” This is undoubtedly a call for service. A beautiful thing about life is, even when you can’t help yourself, you can help someone else. That’s service in its highest form. I’ve heard before that flowers don’t pick themselves; rivers don’t drink their own water; trees don’t eat their own fruit; and the sun doesn’t shine on itself. King understood this simple yet profound rule of nature—existing for others makes the world better. Find a way to serve your students, colleagues, and community—even the smallest gesture can leave a large imprint on the heart.
Remember that the truest reflection of our values are our standards. We all should develop good values that we can stand on 10 toes down, unshakable. We say integrity is doing the right thing when no one’s watching. I believe it’s also doing the hard things when everyone’s watching.
Finally, on sacrifice, we all know that King gave it all—he paid the ultimate price. But the reward was infinite. MLK’s work and that of the civil rights movement transformed the nation, moving it closer to its ideals and giving it hope. Our goal today is not to sacrifice our lives but instead the comfort zones we reside in.
Schools are exactly where this should be happening. Let’s ask ourselves: Are we willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations about equity in order to move toward greater understanding? Are we willing to address our implicit biases? Will we forgive others, include others, and see the best in everyone around us, building as King said, “dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear?” Choosing to leave our comfort zones is a necessary sacrifice if we want to embrace a true spirit of unity.
Service, standards, and sacrifice breed significance. Significance can’t be erased, it can’t be permanently scrubbed from history books. I implore you to chase significance. Whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, male or female, Black, white, brown, or blue, the time to love thy neighbor is always right now. If you haven’t lived that way, start now.
It is my hope that the enduring words of MLK and RFK will be celebrated unceasingly and shared perpetually among all races and generations. I do this with the students I mentor and I challenge you to do the same. After all, your moment of significance is coming. It may be on the back of a flatbed truck, in your own backyard, or in the schoolyard just outside the window. May the message spoken a half century ago be the one we live today. It is up to each of us to make it so.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2023 edition of Education Week as ‘What We Need Is Compassion Toward One Another’