President Clinton, flanked by oversized photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, implored the nation Saturday to heed the message of his heroes by forswearing violence and working “to pull this country together.”
Clinton spoke at the dedication of a memorial to King and Kennedy at the corner of 17th and Broadway, where Kennedy gave a memorable speech that quieted a distraught crowd on the night of King’s murder in Tennessee 26 years ago.
The Indianapolis memorial, named “A Landmark for Peace,” will be built from melted-down guns seized by police or voluntarily exchanged for tickets in a program sponsored by the Indiana Pacers basketball team.
The ceremony, attended by Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and King’s two sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, was abbreviated by a sudden downpour.
Also attending was Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, who was in the state to deliver a speech at the University of Notre Dame.
Aides said Clinton had planned to deliver more extensive remarks about violence, community and individual responsibility, but he spoke for only six minutes on the general themes of unity and freedom.
Clinton said he had recently read about a crime-ridden neighborhood in Washington that had built a tall fence and hired security guards to keep gunmen and drug dealers out.
“Is it freedom in the ‘90s when we have to put up walls between our own people even as we celebrate the walls coming down from Berlin to South Africa?” Clinton asked. “Is that our freedom? Are we going to live in a time when all of our political dialogue becomes a shouting match?”
He said those who preach hate get talk shows. “If you preach love, you’ll get a yawn,” Clinton said.
The memorial commemorates King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, and Kennedy’s words to a crowd that was ready to erupt in riot, as angry mobs across the nation did following the civil rights leader’s death.
Kennedy, ignoring the advice of police and aides who said it was too dangerous to venture into a black neighborhood, stood on the street corner and announced the news of King’s death to the gasps of the stunned crowd.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness,” Kennedy said, “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.”
Speaking without notes, Kennedy then quoted the Greek poet and playwright Aeschylus in words that are now engraved at Kennedy’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Later Saturday, Clinton spoke to a Democratic Governors’ Assn. luncheon, at which he decried the “shrill, uncivil and diversionary rhetoric” that has replaced reasoned discourse in Washington.
He recounted his Administration’s legislative accomplishments, saying that most had been enacted despite fierce partisan opposition.
And then, in perhaps a veiled reference to the scrutiny he has been under over his finances and personal behavior, Clinton said: “Ultimately we cannot prevail unless there is a new spirit among the American people, a new determination to change the way we evaluate politics and politicians.”
Before the Kennedy/King event, Clinton met privately for about 15 minutes with Prime Minister Reynolds and Dermot Gallagher, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States.
A White House aide said Reynolds briefed Clinton on progress toward a peace agreement for Northern Ireland. “The President commended him for his good works and expressed the hope that this will work to some resolution,” said White House Communications Director Mark D. Gearan.
The meeting came one day after Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, breathed new life into the peace initiative by communicating with Britain’s Northern Ireland Office in Belfast, an indication the talks have not stalled.