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Moment of Indiana History

Kennedy and King

Indiana’s Democratic leadership was not enthusiastic about Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1968, which he had announced in mid-March, just before flying to Indianapolis to register for its May primary. The junior Senator from New York and erstwhile U.S. Attorney General who had long championed civil rights returned to stump across Indiana April 4 th. After having begun the day in South Bend, Kennedy wrapped up an appearance at Ball State before heading to Indianapolis. Boarding a plane in Muncie, Kennedy learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot on the balcony of a Memphis motel. By the time Kennedy alighted from his plane, he had received news of King’s death.

Anticipating violent repercussions in the mostly black neighborhood where Kennedy’s evening rally was to take place, city officials, including Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar, advised Kennedy to cancel the appearance. Instead, Kennedy not only showed up, but gave an impromptu speech that delivered the news of King’s death in a way that is credited with having quelled the firestorm that news ignited in other cities.

“What we need in the United States is not division,” Kennedy averred that night at 17 th and Broadway; “what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.” In the eight days following King’s assassination, rioting in urban centers across the country resulted in at least 46 deaths, 2,600 injuries and tens of thousands of arrests. Indianapolis, however, remained relatively peaceful.

In a primary that brought out a record number of Indiana’s Democratic voters, Robert Kennedy led the race against Senator Eugene McCarthy and Governor Roger Branigin. Kennedy captured nine out of eleven of Indiana’s Congressional districts, and eleven of twelve of the state’s largest municipalities. He received 90% of the black vote, and raised voter turnout in low-income areas. Having led the Indiana and Nebraska contests, Kennedy went on to take the California primary, a victory he was celebrating in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel during the wee hours of June 5 th, when he was fatally shot.

In 1994, a commemorative sculpture was installed in a park that marks the site of Kennedy’s 1968 speech on the night of King’s death. “The Landmark for Peace,” represents the two slain leaders, reaching towards one another across a divide. A 2008 documentary on the subject, “A Ripple of Hope,” produced by Anderson University’s Covenant Productions marks the 40th anniversary of the historic event.

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