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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    Trailer for “11.22.63” Stephen King Miniseries

    Hulu is producing an eight-part miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63, a delightful time-travel novel that Chimesfreedom reviewed earlier. The new trailer for the miniseries features actor James Franco as the time-traveling Jake Epping.

    As discussed in our review of the book, 11.22.63 centers on Epping’s attempts to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination. Before acting decisively, though, he has to investigate whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. I loved the book, and this trailer makes me excited for the miniseries too.

    The miniseries 11.22.63 is directed by Kevin Macdonald and also stars Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, and Josh Duhamel. The miniseries hits Hulu on February 15, 2016, which is Presidents’ Day.

    What is your favorite Stephen King adaptation? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Harry Shearer’s New Series on Richard Nixon

    Actor Harry Shearer, famous for his work in This Is Spinal Tap, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons, is tackling a new character with his YouTube mini-series, former president Richard M. Nixon. In the new series, entitled Nixon’s the One, Shearer portrays Nixon by following transcripts of actual audio recordings of Nixon. The results are both illuminating and funny.

    Shearer and Nixon scholar and author Stanley Kutler listened to Nixon recordings to find segments that reveal Nixon’s everyday life. Shearer explained to CBS that he always felt that portrayals of Nixon missed something about the man. Shearer sees him as “this strange, self-torturing, self-destroying guy who was, in my point of view, darkly comic.” These new episodes attempt to capture that tragic and comic part of Nixon.

    This segment of Nixon’s the One gives a hidden-camera view of Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger about John F. Kennedy.

    The following episode captures Nixon’s conversations as he prepares to give his speech to the nation announcing his resignation. As Nixon engages the reporters in small talk as he prepares to resign, the result is funny but also heartbreaking. Certainly, it captures the loneliness of Nixon at that moment. Check it out.

    It should not be too surprising that the man who does the voice of Mr. Burns would help us see another side of President Nixon. Check out other segments of Nixon’s the One on YouTube. If you want to compare the resignation video to the real thing, see below.

    Who is your favorite actor to portray Nixon? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Pres. Kennedy Advises U.S. to Start Digging

    On October 6, 1961, in a letter to the members of the Committee on Civil Defense of the Governors’ Conference, President John F. Kennedy addressed fears of a thermo-nuclear war.  He called for a “national understanding” of the need for government and private bomb shelters. “In simple terms,” he urged, “this goal is to reach for fallout protection for every American as rapidly as possible.”

    In the letter, President Kennedy recounted that the federal government was moving forward to make fallout shelter space available.  But he also urged states and individuals to act. He noted, “The people of this country will be urged, by me, by the Governors and by other leaders to do what is within their means.”

    Additionally, Kennedy predicted, “Protection against this threat is within reach of an informed America willing to face the facts and act.” A year later in October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis made fallout shelters seem even more necessary.

    Atomic and Nuclear War Fears

    Anyone who grew up between the late 1940s through the next several decades will remember these fears of atomic or nuclear war that peaked at various times.  While such fears have changed over time, one may look back on those times through popular culture.

    My seventh grade teacher gave our class a major assignment where we each had to design a fallout shelter.  Each of our shelters had to be planned to protect and house our class indefinitely in the wake of a nuclear war. It was an interesting assignment, and I remember carefully calculating food supplies and the size of the shelter. I suspect today there would be complaints if a teacher gave the assignment to students due to the accompanying nightmares.

    The fears of annihilation by the new powerful bombs did not begin and end with President Kennedy. The 1959 movie On the Beach with Gregory Peck was a story about survivors of World War III. In 1964, Henry Fonda played a president contemplating the possibility of nuclear war in Fail Safe.  The same year director Stanley Kubrick addressed the insanity of nuclear bombs in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Decades later, the 1983 TV mini-series The Day After terrified a new generation.

    Ladybug Ladybug

    Many years ago, I was flipping around the TV channels very late at night and ran across a black and white movie about schoolchildren walking home from school after an alarm warning of a nuclear attack. The film, Ladybug Ladybug (1963), warned about the dark side of our fears. Watching the haunting movie at such a late hour led to me not getting much sleep that night, and the movie has stayed with me.

    For full effect, watch Ladybug Ladybug late at night and contemplate the time period where they did not have the Internet or cell phones. The movie was directed by Frank Perry and starred Jane Connell and William Daniels.

    Unfortunately, the whole movie is no longer available on YouTube.  But here is a scene from Ladybug Ladybug.

    Duck and Cover

    One of the most famous “films” about these world-ending fears was the short film made by the U.S. Government’s civil defense branch in 1951 and first shown in 1952 during the Korean War. “Duck and Cover” was aimed at kids, and it begins with an animated Bert the Turtle.

    Schoolchildren for many years would learn from Bert the Turtle how to protect themselves by ducking and covering themselves. The advice is ridiculous for someone near the bomb’s target area.  But supposedly the suggestion is not so ridiculous for those further away seeking to protect themselves.

    Still, like my teacher’s bomb shelter exercise, in retrospect it seems an odd thing to be teaching children.  Check it out.

    Modern Fears

    Fortunately, through the hard work of many decent leaders, kids today do not have the same immediate fear of a nuclear war with another country. Unfortunately, human ignorance and brutality have not gone away and have survived in other forms.  Today, we cannot even pretend that fallout shelters will protect us from the threats and fears of modern society.

    Thus, we can no longer pretend that we are protected by a president’s idea of digging in the ground or a cartoon turtle’s suggestion to “duck and cover.” But at least we are still around.

    What do you remember about the Cold War? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “We Shall Overcome”

    On July 2 in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The important act, which had survived heated discussion in the Senate and the House of Representatives, made racial segregation in public places illegal.

    The law had an even broader impact.  It also prohibited discrimination on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in schools and in employment.

    The Signing

    President Johnson, who worked hard to push through the legislation after President John F. Kennedy’s death, used more than 75 pens to sign the legislation. He gave out the pens to many people who helped with the bill, including Martin Luther King, Jr. King later said the pen was one of his most cherished possessions.

    The video below features President Johnson giving the pen to King. It also includes some of Johnson’s speech before the signing.

    “We Shall Overcome”

    One of the songs that played a significant role in the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” The song developed from an African-American hymn first used as a protest song by striking tobacco workers in 1945.

    “We Shall Overcome” grew to help inspire changes that shook the world. Many continue to recognize its importance. In recognition of the song’s role in the civil rights movement, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, members of Congress joined hands and sang the song.

    The video below is from a recording by a number of artists — including John Legend, Joss Stone and The Blind Boys of Alabama — for Soundtrack for a Revolution (2011), an album of songs from the civil rights movement.

    One of the artists who helped popularize the song was folksinger Pete Seeger.  In this video, Seeger explains the history behind the song.

    Of course, the Civil Rights Act did not end racial discrimination.  But it was an important step in the ongoing process.

    One of the reasons “We Shall Overcome” is a great song is its timelessness. It is not a song of “we have overcome” about past accomplishments.  It is a song that reminds us that there are always more struggles ahead of us to overcome. And we shall.


    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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