In my latest column for The Daily Beast, I discuss what I believe was the greatest speech of the 20th Century. Here’s an excerpt:
From the ad hoc debates that framed our founding documents, to the native jazz syncopations that power our cultural soundtrack, to the deeply American notion that we all deserve second chances — our national fabric is woven together by motley patches of spontaneous innovation, creativity and reinvention.
It’s no wonder that we cherish the myth that our history’s greatest oration was scribbled furiously on the back of an envelope during a train ride to a Pennsylvania battlefield.
But while Lincoln’s words were more planned and deliberate, the most significant speech of the 20th century was indeed improvised, a spontaneous burst of prose and poetry in the immediate wake of national tragedy. And much as the Gettysburg Address forever redefined the Founders’ promise that “all men are created equal,” Bobby Kennedy’s extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr. — delivered 46 years ago today — can offer a path toward a more just, compassionate second act for our country.
It was the evening of April 4, 1968, and a bitter, black nightfall had descended on one of our nation’s grayest days.
Rejecting the impassioned urging of local officials who feared imminent violence, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ascended the back of a flatbed truck in a vacant lot, surrounded by dilapidated public housing units, in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto. Hair tussled, wearing the old overcoat of his fallen brother, Bobby stepped up to a single microphone before a growingly angry African-American audience that had waited hours in the freezing cold to confirm what many had already heard: that Martin Luther King, Jr. — their Voice — had been permanently silenced. And without notes, speaking directly from his heart, a heart that ached from an unimaginable half-decade of grief — grief for a brother, for a comrade-in-peace, for a nation in turmoil — Robert Kennedy improvised the speech of his life.
Click here to read “RFK and the Healing Power of Improvisation.”
And watch RFK’s moving oratory below: