Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 15. Segment 8
A Dream Deferred

Martin Luther King, Jr., is carried to his grave in a casket of polished African mahogany on a plain farm cart pulled by two mules. See It Now - Martin Luther King's Funeral The cart and the mules remind people that King's ancestors farmed America's land with courage and dignity. The mahogany symbolizes his African heritage. Weeping at the graveside are leaders from around the world, who have come to pay tribute to the man who has earned a Nobel prize with his message of love and brotherhood and peace. But at the very time King is being lowered into his grave, 130 cities are burning. The violence that Robert Kennedy helped quell in Indianapolis cannot be contained elsewhere. Rioters, looting and shooting, kill people and destroy homes and businesses. Sixty-five thousand troops are needed to end the riots. Most rioters are black; so are most of the victims. It doesn't make sense. When the fires cool, thirty-nine people are dead. Stokely Carmichael explains in racist terms, saying, "When white America killed Dr. King, she declared war on us."

Yet, though most people are thinking in racial terms, that concern is obscuring the real problem: the poverty in this prosperous land. Martin Luther King, Jr., had seen that. So had LBJ. Robert Kennedy realizes that America will never truly be a land of the free if some people are trapped in poverty and denied equal opportunities. Kennedy says he hopes to build a bridge between rich and poor. He decides to run for president. He energizes a young, dynamic following. See It Now - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. But along with the cheers and excitement, there are pamphlets of hate. Then, just two months after Dr. King's funeral, Bobby wins the Democratic primary in California and South Dakota. There is cause for celebration. It is June 8, 1968, and he thanks a cheering crowd of supporters: "Here is California, the most urban state of any of the states of our Union. South Dakota, the most rural of any of the states of our Union. We were able to win them both. I think that we can end the divisions within the United States."

Then Robert Kennedy, heading for a press conference, takes a short cut through the hotel kitchen. He is confronted by Sirhan Sirhan, a man born in Jerusalem who hates Kennedy for his support of Israel. A shot rings out—and the man who might have been president is dead. It is the violent end of an era that was intended to be nonviolent.

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