Only by confronting the truth, he argued, and eschewing votes won by “hiding the American condition in false hopes or illusions,” could a presidential candidate “find out the promise of the future, what we can accomplish here in the United States, what this country does stand for and what is expected of us in the years ahead.”
And so Kennedy articulated “where we’ve gone wrong” to the crowd:
I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi, here in the United States, with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars—I have seen children in the Delta area with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed. I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.
I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide. That they end their lives by killing themselves—I don’t think that we have to accept that for the first Americans, for this minority here in the United States. If young boys and girls are so filled with despair when they are going to high school and feel that their lives are so hopeless, that nobody's going to care for them … that they either hang themselves, shoot themselves, or kill themselves—I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America.
“I run for the presidency because of that,” he said. “I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one—neither industry, nor labor, nor government—has cared enough to help them.”
I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also. I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms—without heat—warding off the cold and warding off the rats. If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
In the same speech, Kennedy delivered as fine a passage as exists in favor of the proposition that it isn’t economic growth alone that voters ought to be concerned about:
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product, if we judge the United States of America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.
It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Then it is April 4, 1968—the day Martin Luther King is shot. Kennedy is scheduled to speak in an African American neighborhood in Indianapolis that night. He is warned that the authorities cannot guarantee his safety but decides to go on with remarks written just prior and delivered from the back of a flatbed truck.