This week in America would make RFK weep

Timothy Denevi is the author of "Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson's Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism" and a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. The views expressed here are solely the author's. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Fifty-two years ago this weekend, Robert F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from New York and a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, died in Los Angeles, the victim of a political assassination. I've been looking again at the final months of his life, which were largely shaped by the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. The words he spoke the night of April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated, and in the days following feel tailor-made for own moment in 2020. And his efforts at guidance as a presidential candidate during those weeks leading up to his own death on June 6, bring into stark relief the stunning dereliction of leadership shown in 2020 by President Donald Trump.

Timothy Denevi
If there's one thing Kennedy couldn't stand, it was the sort of person who spoke to the basest instincts in the human condition, those bullies willing to play up our divisions for personal gain. It could be a small-town sheriff or the President of the United States: such narrow-mindedness, as he said the week before King's assassination, "ran contrary to the deepest and most dominant impulses of the American character." The only way to fight them off was to use what they lacked: "integrity, truth, and honor...generosity and compassion," the traits that he believed could bring even the most disparate of us together.
    On the night of King's death, Kennedy broke the news to a large crowd of predominantly black supporters in downtown Indianapolis.
      "Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings," he said. "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."
        President John F. Kennedy with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy in May 1963.
        Then, for the first and only time in his life, he opened up publicly about his own brother's murder, in Dallas, four years earlier: "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 difficult times." He quoted Aeschylus's The Oresteia, a passage from the Greek tragedy about the acceptance and wisdom that can only be gained over time, "through the awful grace of God," in surrender.

        'What we need in the United States is not division'

          He was speaking extemporaneously, without notes, his voice low and halting. "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need 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." He talked just under five minutes. "So I shall ask you tonight to return home," he concluded, "to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, but more importantly to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love..."
          And that was exactly what happened in Indianapolis; when he was finished, the thousands in the crowd headed home. Riots were breaking out in Washington, DC and Chicago but in Indianapolis there wouldn't be violence.
          It was, in retrospect, one of the most astonishing performances in American history. And over the next two weeks, as fires and looting swept through more than a hundred American cities, he'd continue in his role as the country's impromptu voice of reconciliation, the closest thing to what we so clearly seem to lack today: a leader with the capacity to clarify our pain in all its uncomfortable dimensions.
          He was terrified of what might happen to this country if such raw and deeply-felt pain was left to fester; it would open the door of the American system to a leader who embodied the worst in us, someone willing to go so far as to openly call upon what Kennedy described that spring as "the darker impulses of the American spirit." It's a haunting description, one that, after what happened this week in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, where hundreds of unarmed protesters were gassed and beaten in clashes with federal law enforcement as they cleared the space on the explicit orders of President Trump's attorney general, William Barr — feels more urgent than ever.

          'Punishment is not prevention'

          As he continued to campaign for the presidency after King's assassination, Kennedy asked his audiences to stop and consider why a young man would feel compelled to burn down his own neighborhood, which he characterized as "a destructive and self-defeating attempt to assert his worth and dignity as a human being." He questioned the police and National Guard's brutality, asserting that "punishment is not prevention."
          And at almost every stop, from one campaign event to the next, he turned the conversation to the complicity that white Americans, by ignoring their own roles in the perpetuation of the systemic injustice tearing the country apart, bore for the recent violence. "There is another kind of violence," he explained, "the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay."
          At the heart of his perspective was a stark if simple premise. when vulnerable Americans suffer, we all do. "Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily," he said the morning after Martin Luther King's death, "the whole nation is degraded."
          It certainly feels that way today, more than half a century later. How could the recent killing of George Floyd — a black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis after begging for his life — be characterized as anything other than a degradation, an enduring, unforgivable shame burning in the country's soul?

          'A good man yields when he knows his course is wrong'

          But as Kennedy also reminded us in the weeks after King's assassination, anger and fury, no matter how righteous, means nothing without accountability. "Violence breeds violence," he said, "repression brings retaliation." He asked from us what he believed we should all be demanding to see in him: "The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence."
          On this note, he had no patience for liars. It was why he'd thrown his hat into the ring for the presidency in the first place: he couldn't stand by while more and more Americans continued to die in Vietnam while Lyndon Johnson lied about victory being just around the corner and refused to cut his losses. "A good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evils," he said that March. "The only sin is pride."
          President Lyndon B. Johnson talks with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on March 3, 1966.
          This was RFK in 1968. He hadn't always talked this way, of course. Since the start of the decade he'd come a long way, especially on racial and economic justice. He was shaped — painfully, against his will — by tragedy: the loss of his beloved older brother and everything they'd spend their adult lives creating. Afterward, it unearthed in him a sensitivity that might otherwise have remained dormant. And the final ingredient, it seems, was Martin Luther King, Jr's horrific assassination. "From here on," Jules Witcover would write in "85 Days," "the private Robert Kennedy that his closest friends professed him to be — not the strident, not the bombastic, but the low-keyed and sensitive — increasingly emerged in his public life as a campaigner."
          At last he was the person he'd spent his life becoming — the most fully realized version of himself. There wouldn't be the chance to become another.

          After 52 years, more injustice

          Two months after King's murder, on the night he won the all-important California primary, Kennedy was shot at point-blank range with a .22 caliber revolver by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Pasadena resident of Palestinian descent who for weeks had been writing in his notebook, "R.F.K. must die!" It was ostensibly for supporting Israel. The fatal bullet struck him just below his right ear. Still, for 15 astonishing minutes, he somehow remained alert. "Is everybody okay?" he asked. When his wife, Ethel, arrived, he caught her glance, gazing back. At last a pair of medical attendants arrived, lifting him without warning onto their stretcher. "Oh, no, no, no," he whispered. "Please don't move me." Then he lost consciousness. The next day — June 6, 1968 — he was dead.
          This week, despite my best efforts, I keep thinking about Bobby Kennedy and George Floyd -- by looking, without sentimentality, at the final moments in their equally abbreviated lives.
          Get our free weekly newsletter

          Sign up for CNN Opinion's new newsletter.

          Join us on Twitter and Facebook

            Both were in agonizing pain. Both were terrified. Both were conscious of what was happening to them and at the same time helpless to stop it. In their final, horrific moments, the only thing left for them to understand was suffering, its all-consuming degradation.
            No one deserves to die violently in America. The injustice is that, 52 years later, it takes so much to remind us of exactly that.