RFK (and Aeschylus) on MLK Assassination

At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. At the time, the Civil Rights leader stood on the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King died around an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Two months would pass before Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport, but in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, devastated Americans rioted in many major American cities. Many leaders appealed to the country to avoid violence.

Bobby Kennedy’s Appeal

One of the leaders who asked for calm on the night of the assassination was Robert F. Kennedy. The presidential candidate heard of King’s death when he was on his way to a routine campaign rally in Indianapolis, Indiana.

And, in those days before cell phones, the Internet, and Twitter, most people did not know immediately about King’s death. So, Bobby Kennedy knew that he would be breaking the tragic news to the largely African-American crowd.

Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck and broke the news to the crowd in a short speech.  He invoked the the country’s history and the death of his brother John F. Kennedy. And he appealed to King’s message of nonviolence and love.

Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Kennedy also quoted the Greek dramatist Aeschylus from what Kennedy called his favorite poem.

Even 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.

Although Kennedy does not name the poem, the quote comes from Agamemnon by Aeschylus (lines 179-183). The poem, written around 458 B.C.E., is the first in a cycle of three plays by Aeschylus.

The tragedy centers on King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, who was left behind while the king is off fighting in the Trojan War. The quote comes from an ode by the Greek Chorus.

Translations of Agamemnon: A Misquote? 

One struggles to imagine most current politicians being able to quote an Ancient Greek writer off the top of their heads. Some have noted that Kennedy’s quote is not completely accurate, detecting a pause in his voice and wondering whether he changed “despite” to “despair” intentionally or by accident.

Of course, Kennedy is quoting a translation, and translations may differ too. Below is one of the most famous translations of Agamemnon by Edith Hamilton from 1930.

And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite,
Against our will,
Comes wisdom to us
By the awful grace of God.

The Hamilton translation is very close to Kennedy’s quote, and is likely the version he was recalling. A 1937 translation by Hamilton is significantly different (beginning “Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart / Sorrow falls, memory’s pain . . .”).

And this version by E. D. A. Morshead is much more different.

In visions of the night, like dropping rain,
Descend the many memories of pain
Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole,
Comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul-
A boon, I wot, of all Divinity,
That holds its sacred throne in strength, above the sky!

Impact of Kennedy’s Speech

Whether or not Kennedy took some liberties with the quote, of course, is not important in light of the power of his heartfelt speech.  As he concluded, he asked, “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.”

Thirty-four cities erupted in riots after King’s death.  After Kennedy’s speech, Indianapolis did not. The video below recounts more about the assassination and Kennedy’s speech. Check it out.

A little more than two months after King’s death, Bobby Kennedy was killed not long after midnight on June 6, 1968 in California after winning that state’s presidential primary.

Photo of bust of Aeschylus via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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