Of all the places I most wanted to visit with my family on our annual summer American History driving tour, the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., where on the 4th of April, 1968, a white assassin shot and killed Martin Luther King, was at the top of my list. Ever since I was a boy, Martin Luther King’s life has inspired so much of my outlook about the equality of mankind and the inalienable rights of all of God’s children that I wanted to pay my respects at the site where unbridled hatred cut his life short. I wanted my kids to see the hotel patio where one of the greatest Americans who ever lived was cut down and convey to them the history of what happened there, the sacrifices he made to create a truly democratic America.
And as I stood in Memphis this past Sunday, my thoughts took me by association to another hotel, this one in Los Angeles, where another great American was shot and killed in the same year. The difference is that hotel has been slated for complete demolition so a school can be built in its place. I speak, of course, of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where on June 5, 1968, just a few months after Martin Luther King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was felled by the bullet of the Palestinian assassin Sirhan Sirhan. I should add that the Ambassador Hotel has personal significance to me because it was where my mother worked as a bank teller when we lived in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
I have always had a great love for history and therefore counted the 11 years I resided in Europe as a great blessing. Wherever I turned I saw a piece of history. The office I occupied in Oxford, England, overlooked a thousand-year-old city center. All the great capitals of Europe were about an hour away by plane, and I tried to see each of them. I have believed, and have instilled within my children, the strong conviction that in the past lies the key to the present and the promise of the future. Historical books account for about 90 percent of my reading.
Now, America is, of course, much younger than Europe, and its history goes back only hundreds rather than thousands of years. You would think that, in the light of these circumstances, we Americans would hold on to every last inch of history we have, because we don’t have enough of it. And here there is a plan to destroy the site where one of the most charismatic and special of all 20th century Americans was killed, in the midst of a presidential race, just minutes after he had won the California primary.
Robert Kennedy was an icon to so many Americans like me, who saw him as a great man who grew in stature and understanding and was cut down just as he assembled a presidential campaign of the disenfranchised, the poor and the neglected. He was beloved by Jewish Americans and by black Americans, who looked at him as a growing champion of civil rights. He was a man who was brought up as a son of privilege but who, with difficulty, went beyond his own class to show sincere empathy with the downtrodden. The speech he gave the night of Martin Luther King’s murder will forever rank as one of the most moving, sincere and inspiring in America’s history. It was bad enough that he was shot and killed the first time. Should we erase his memory as well?
The demolition of the Ambassador Hotel ranks as an act of sheer stupidity and is a sacrilege to history. This is especially true for the city of Los Angeles, which again is itself one of America’s newest cities and, in Hollywood, has more of a history of make-believe than a real and tangible history to inspire its citizens. California also has a governor who is married to a Kennedy. Is Maria Shriver going to allow the place where her uncle was assassinated to be torn down by a wrecking ball? And where is the voice of Sen. Edward Kennedy when it can really count? Is he so busy condemning President Bush’s attempts to build a democracy in Iraq that he is oblivious to this terrible desecration of his brother’s memory?
The Los Angeles Board of Education, which owns the property, maintains that they need the area to build a school that will house 4,500 students and that education should come first. But what sort of education are they giving their students by trampling all over history? What example are they showing to students of the need to cherish history as they destroy a place of hallowed memory, showing them that history is so utterly insignificant that it can be torn down.
These students will no doubt study about the terrible wave of ’60s assassinations in the U.S. only do discover that they are eating their lunch right on the spot where Robert Kennedy took a bullet to the head. Would a school have been built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, as well? Would the African-American community have allowed it?
I lived in Los Angeles for the first eight years of my life. I know it’s a pretty big place, and I bet that a school can probably be built somewhere else. And if they’re in really dire straights, better to tear down one of the many Hollywood studios that produces fiction rather than a site that forces Americans to confront some of the gruesome realities of our past.