I’d listened to this speech yesterday after listening to King’s “Mountain Top” speech in its entirety for the first time. There are some fascinating moments: Kennedy asking an aide if the crowd heard the news; his asking them to lower their signs; the catch in his voice that he covers by clearing his throat.
Eric over at edgeofthewest reflects on Kennedy’s speech, which I agree was problematic in its details, but also amazingly coherent and eloquent considering it was delivered extemporaneously.
You can see it as an arrogant speech, with a white man telling black people how they can feel, and you can see something absurd in Kennedy noting that his brother was killed by a white man, and you can see him as elitist for quoting Aeschylus, and you can see it as an early step in the long process of rendering King a figure safely standing for compassion, rather than a fighter.
But it’s hard to ignore the reaction to the speech. From the wail at the beginning of the speech, as he breaks the news, through the silence in the middle, to the applause at the end, is a long emotional distance. It’s astonishing that any politician could take a crowd that far that quickly, let alone doing so extemporaneously.
I asked my mother, who was a student at Howard at the time, where she was when she found out, and her answer was so fascinating — how did I not hear this story before? — that it probably deserves its own post.