The Reverend and the Politician

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For those of us who were on this earth and old enough to see the turmoil of the 1960’s, one year stands out. 1968 was when two men standout who defined our times: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. 

The pain of that year aches still with so many “what if” questions. This month, Brad Byrd and Chief Photographer John Simpson visited a small Indianapolis park scene of an impromptu 7 minute long speech historians still believe saved a city, a speech now forever forged in sculpture and stone. 

A cold, overcast day in a small park, People come together to remember a seven minute long speech that broke hearts but saved a city.

“1968 did a lot to our country,” said former ABC Correspondent Steve Bell.

“He spoke a lot about the anger and the need for revenge in a way that was so extraordinary that night,” said Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter Kerry Kennedy, “because it was that’s legitimate to feel that way.” 

It was a day filled with hope.

“I’ve never known that memory of that speech,” said former Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar, “but subsequently it was engrained upon me.” 

With Winter refusing to give way to Spring, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Robert F. Kennedy was in the infancy of a campaign to take the torch that was taken from his brother. 

“Well, Daddy was talking about the divisions in our country,” said Kerry Kennedy. “We need to end the divisions between black and white.” 

A rally of more than 9,000 at Ball State University took place on April 4, 1968. A question by one student would later haunt RFK: Do you feel our civil rights leaders can stay safe in white America? About that same time, Dr. King was shot and killed

RFK is told Dr. King had been shot as he boards the plane from Muncie to Indianapolis. He would learn upon landing that Dr. King is dead.

“I felt we could have a very, very bad tragedy,” said Lugar, “and I was deeply worried about that.” 

Lugar was 36-years-old at the time and just four months into office. 

“I told his folks please don’t come,” said Lugar, “as you had been thinking about 17th and Broadway that was a very difficult situaton.” 

Indianapolis Police would not escort them into the 17th and Broadway predominately black neighborhood. 

“My father spent a lot of time in African-American neighborhoods,” said Kerry Kennedy, “in ghettoes through our country in most difficult neighborhoods, most violent neighborhoods in our country.” 

Kennedy said nonetheless “I’m going.” His small entourage approached a flatbed trailer. 

Kerry Kennedy was 8-years-old on that April night.

“These were his people,” said Kerry Kennedy, “and he wanted to come and break this terrible news to them.” 

The crowd estimated in the thousands for what they thought would be a campaign rally long before smartphones, most unaware of what had happened. Wearing his brother’s coat, RKF faced the crowd. 

“I have some very sad news for all of you,” said Robert F. Kennedy, “and I think sad news for our fellow citizens for those who love peace all over the world and that is and that is Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” 

Kennedy had scribbled notes, but he did not use them.

“For those of you who are black and filled with hatred and mistrust with the injustice of such an act against all white people,” said Robert F. Kennedy, “I can only say I can 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.” 

“No one else that I know of certainly,” said Bell, “no one in the campaign that year could handle that moment the way he did.” 

“125 cities were burning that night,” said Kerry Kennedy. “There had been riots in our country in 1967 and 1968.” 

Close to a hundred people died in the following days, but Indianapolis did not burn. Steve Bell arrived in Indiana just days after the RFK speech. Less than two months later, Bell reported on scene radio updates found himself in Los Angeles on stage side by side with Kennedy. 

“I was right behind him in the hallway,” said Bell, “and it was filled with supporters. And they were cheering, balloons, balloons were popping. If you were ten feet behind Bobby, you didn’t hear the bullets.” 

Two men often at odds in those troubled times of the 1960’s, a time when black and white forces searched their souls on the issue of civil rights often in conflict. 

Two men drawn together by the absurdity of history between the bookends of two heartbreaking months of 1968. Two men reaching out as though they had finally found common ground.

“Bring everyone together like the kids on that playground,” said Bell.

It just reminds you of how they have been brought together historically, at the time there as not that link. But it was provided in no small part on what happened here in Indiana.

To learn about 1968 and the impact it had on our lives that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, visit the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative website

Full interview with ABC News correspondent Steve Bell

Full interview with Kerry Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s daughter:

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(This story was originally published on April 25, 2018)  

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