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Missing voices

The anniversary Wednesday of the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought to mind how much we have lost in the past 50 years.

It is hard to fathom now that in order to have any memory of Dr. King in life, one would have to be nearing 60 years of age. The same with Robert Kennedy. Both were assassinated in 1968, surely one of the hardest years of America’s history.

Remembering these leaders points to a grave deficiency of our time, at least since Ronald Reagan left the public stage. People who can inspire us with their eloquence and honesty seem to be missing.

Many would say President Obama filled that part most recently. But while Obama can deliver a good speech, he is known more for his grace and intellect and, sometimes, his humor, than for the passion and rhythm of his delivery.

Of course, President Trump tweets much of his communication. We will leave a judgement about this choice for another editorial. Perhaps Solomon could have delivered some inspirational proverbs through Twitter’s character limit. But Trump is no Solomon. His tweets are often cold, mean and bitter – wholly unbecoming a man who claims to rejoice in winning and has won a great deal in his lifetime. As a speaker, he sounds a lot like a bully, whether he means to or not. Most of the time we suspect he means to.

We have Trump’s bombastic, inarticulate and often inaccurate messaging compared to Hillary Clinton’s style that is stilted, regardless of the familiarity she has with her audience. She is perceived as disingenuous and suffers for it.

Compare these people with King, who spoke like what he was, a preacher determined to save America’s soul. We so miss his voice.

Dr. King delivered his last speech, April 3, 1968, and the rhythm of the sermon stays in mind, first etched there 50 years ago.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.

“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

He meant what he said. He was murdered the next day.

Sen. Robert Kennedy was in an airplane above central Indiana when he learned Dr. King had been killed.

He was running for president that year and Indiana’s primary was important to the nomination. He had made speeches at Notre Dame and Ball State.

On a plane headed from Muncie to Indianapolis, he gathered words to be delivered to a largely black crowd in an inner-city neighborhood, breaking the news of Dr. King’s death from the back of a flatbed truck.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

“For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

“We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

“... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

He meant it. He was murdered several weeks later.

We ache for leaders who can use words with sincerity again.