A 21st Century View on the Mindless Menace of Violence

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Today, at the dawn of the new millennium and perhaps for the first time ever, racist beliefs are taking a back seat. Other, more controversial, topics such as gay rights and abortion are taking precedence over the most prominent struggle of the past century. Society has come a long way from segregation and race riots in the 1960’s. At that time, with the recent ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr., racial tensions were at a pinnacle. Those tensions culminated with one of the most cowardly and provocative actions of the 20th century. On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed King in cold blood in Memphis, Tennessee where King was supporting black sanitary public works employees who were being paid less than their white counterparts. His death sparked a series of riots, with some estimates placing them in over 100 cities across the nation. Someone needed to take a stand and try to end the insanity that was occurring; that person was Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the late John F. Kennedy.

The fate of millions across the nation rested on his seasoned shoulders, and ultimately came down to one speech that he delivered at the Cleveland City Club the day after King’s death. His speech ultimately dampened the burning fires of hatred and helped bring about an end to the riots that had rocked the nation. In that speech, he effectively appealed to the masses by funneling the woes and emotions of the black community toward reconciliation and the convictions of the whites toward a greater understanding through his credibility and intense emotions, rather than towards the mindless menace of violence. Given the difficulty of events, when Kennedy spoke, his speech needed to evoke in the country a great sense of harmonization, a task made easier by his political record and prominence within American society.

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As a prominent white politician, one can imagine that the black community may have distrusted him due to their treatment at the hands of the white majority over the centuries. However, Kennedy had a rapport as a champion of civil rights. He had actively pursued this agenda during his time as his brother’s Attorney General and was actively pursuing throughout the course of his short-lived presidential campaign. This gave Kennedy credibility within the black community as a man that they could trust, as a man who had been on the front lines of civil rights previously and would champion their cause. In his speech, he occasionally adopted a tone that was colloquial yet resonant and continuously used the words “we” and “our” when describing the struggles facing the country as a whole in an attempt to resolve conflict between the races. They were one people, undivided, facing the same challenges together. While on one hand he used that everyday voice, he also synthesized a tone of anger and passion through his powerful word choices to try and incite action from the people. Immediately, the listener gathers that this was a man of strength, a man of principle, and somebody that can help to make a larger difference within the context of race relations in America.

He was a man who deeply cared about the issue and was not merely speaking on convention, but instead was speaking because it was a cause near and dear to his heart. He did not simply want to end the riots. Rather he wanted to end all racial conflict. When he discussed the violence that accompanied King’s assassination, he talked about how as a nation, “… we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike”. This blatant show of disgust for what society has become lends itself nicely to his speech’s purpose by showing his listeners, again, that it was a cause he was passionate about and that he would do everything in his power to bring about an end to racial tensions in America. By utilizing his past credibility and a clearly emotional yet colloquial tone of voice, Kennedy added a tremendous amount of strength to his speech, which served to make it an excellent tool for bringing together the two races.

Yet, while Kennedy had the powerful weapons of near-royal credibility, his most valuable tools left to combat the riots and solve decades’ worth of racial violence lay in the realm of emotion. Even from the beginning of the speech, his words served to evoke a sense of mourning and reconciliation among the rioters. One would think that he would accomplish this through compassion and love as they are among the most dynamic tools for incurring change, but what often motivates man to action even more than those emotions is shame and embarrassment. They were among his strongest tools for ending the conflicts and rebuilding society. He was able to shame his white listeners into action by showing them that they were morally incorrect. He was able to guilt and humble his black listeners by pointing out that not only were they gaining nothing through their mindless destruction, but that King himself believed that violence was futile, and that “…hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” (Kennedy). Further along in his speech, he created sadness and empathy between races by explaining to the listener that violence is indiscriminate; it affects, and will affect, all in its path.

He emphasized the point that, “the victims of violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown”. Directly after a section in which Kennedy generated a feeling of anger towards the rioters for their heedless actions, he then said that the rioters were gaining nothing by fighting those who had oppressed them for so long. They were only tarnishing the already atrocious relations between whites and blacks, and were sending those relations down a path from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. That transition forced the listeners to be upset with the rioters and allowed Kennedy to move them towards understanding. Coupled with that idea, he suggested that society had to admit its problems and come to the conclusion that in order to move forward, the people must come together and find common ground. He described this reconciliatory emotion in detail, meant for the sole purpose of bringing about a peace between the rioters and those who had persecuted them.

He was, through feeling and emotion, painting an image of the future in which society was one homogenous body, composed of countrymen working towards a brighter future for America. Overall, Robert Kennedy’s “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” speech soundly appealed to the American people, of all races, to end the violence surrounding King’s death and to bring about a dynamic change in the customs of society. He efficiently used his own credibility and strong emotions to make an impressive and important claim about race relations in America. Ultimately, although his speech did not end the riots single-handedly, it did contribute to a larger trend towards reconciliation between whites and blacks, leading to where society stands today. We are much farther from the edge of the cliff, at a place where blacks and whites exist as more or less equals; brothers and sisters standing together under one flag.

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A 21st Century View on the Mindless Menace of Violence. (2022, Mar 15). Retrieved from


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