“Every April 4 several hundred residents of Indianapolis gather at 17th and Broadway to remember what happened there in 1968. It was the day Robert F. Kennedy likely saved Indianapolis; a story less told,” reports Will Higgins who wrote a story published in the Indianapolis Star entitled April 4, 1968: How RFK Saved Indianapolis.
Much has been written about the 1960s in America and depending upon the age and disposition of the person you ask, you may hear varying opinions about the era.
Some might say, “The 60s were great! What’s not to love? It was after the pill and before aids! It was a magical time in our country’s history and all things seemed possible. Injustices were being exposed. Wrongs were being righted. The music was awesome! Motown and Beatle harmonies were sweeping the country with peace and love.”
Others might say during the 1960s the world was going to hell in a handbasket. War, poverty, strikes, protests, bussing, women’s lib, integration, bra-burning, those whipper-snapper Kennedys, and mop-top ne’er-do-wells The Beatles! Many dads held that their sons with long hair were the cause of the country’s downfall, and some took drastic measures that caused forever fractures within families.
The 1960s were indeed a beautiful, terrible, hopeful, dreadful, unifying, divisive, heart-breaking, and promising decade. On a scale of movies, the decade was somewhere between Camelot and Doom.
And right there in the middle of Middle America stood two 15-year-old boys.
Dan remembers, “We were standing over our bicycles a good 100 yards from the front of The Meadows Shopping Center watching the crowd and the presidential candidate speaking. The event ended and the entourage got into three maybe four cars and left the strip center parking lot heading toward 38th Street. They had to wind around some grass sections between the mall and the access streets and that’s where we were standing over our bikes. We decided to ride toward the cars at a sort of an interception path and to ride alongside the motorcade. The cars slowed and stopped about halfway. The candidate got out and walked maybe 35 yards out into a grassy area. We stopped and dropped our bikes and walked toward him. He was sort of crouched down as I remember. He stood, we spoke, and then we walked him back to his car. He got back in and a moment later his campaign manager Pierre Salinger got out and gave us two tickets to a fundraiser at The Indiana Roof Ballroom. I remember him handing us the tickets for that evening saying, “If it’s okay with your parents?” Our folks drove us downtown that evening, dropped us off at the Indiana Roof Ballroom, where we ate dinner and heard Bobby Kennedy speak at the [$100 per plate] fundraiser.”
Karl Hinkle and Dan Lawhorn had been buddies for years. Karl played in garage bands and worked at Meadows Music at the Meadows Shopping Center on Indy’s east side. The boys were old enough to hold jobs but not old enough to drive cars so they rode their bikes everywhere they went.
At the time, Indianapolis was known as IndiaNOplace or Naptown because life in the city was pretty uneventful. Karl and Dan were ordinary kids from working-class families coasting through adolescence. Then on one extraordinary day, May 4, 1968, they heard Robert F. Kennedy would be speaking at the Meadows Shopping Center. RFK was close to clinching the Democratic Presidential Nomination and spent a lot of time making whistle stops throughout Indiana in the spring of 1968. After receiving 90% of Indiana’s black vote and after carrying many white working-class precincts that had supported George Wallace in 1964, it was projected Bobby Kennedy would walk away with 55 of Indiana’s 63 delegate votes. It was a pretty big deal for this conservative Republican state so when Karl and Dan heard Bobby Kennedy was coming to town, they rode their Schwinns to the Meadows to see if they could catch a glimpse. Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to speak at 2:55p.
Neither Dan nor Karl remember the words spoken with the Senator that afternoon, but the memory is forever stamped on their hearts. Politically, their dads were both firmly planted one in each camp. Dan’s dad was a big union guy, so when JFK ran for President, his jeep was covered in Bayh and Kennedy bumper stickers! Karl’s dad always voted Republican and when I researched what the Republican equivalent of a “yellow dog Democrat” is, I learned the answer is quite simple: a Republican. Karl’s mother shed some tears when JFK was assassinated. The boys were good friends and remain so to this day (as I write this, they will be 70 on their next birthdays). Their families got along great. Opinions ran hot in Indiana in the 60s, but common decency and friendship ran deeper.
Here is another interesting twist. One month to the day before Dan and Karl had their encounter with him, Bobby Kennedy addressed a crowd on April 4, 1968, of mostly African Americans near 17th and Broadway where he sadly delivered the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that very evening at 6:01p. John Lewis had organized the rally. It was a cold miserable evening and the campaign had visited Ball State in Muncie and Notre Dame in South Bend that day. He was boarding the airplane to return to Indianapolis when he heard that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. When he landed in Indianapolis, he learned MLK had died.
The audience at 17th and Broadway was estimated at only about 2,500 people, but they were influencers: members of young, somewhat radical black groups like the College Room, the Watoto Wa Simba, the Black Panthers, and the Black Radical Action Project. Richard Lugar was the mayor at the time and urged Kennedy not to go because he could not guarantee his safety. Racial violence would indeed later sweep the country, with riots in more than 100 cities, 39 people killed, and more than 2,000 injured. But not in Indianapolis.
The area around 17th and Broadway was known as quite problematic in 1968 with regards to segregation, crime, and poverty. City officials warned them not to go.
Bobby went anyway.
Short of telling the crowd not to burn down the city, he urged calm and racial harmony. His speech was from the heart and the crowd heard him. Mary Evans, a 16-year-old from North Central High School recalls, “It was like the feeling some people get in church,” she says. “I was scared [as one of a few whites in a largely black crowd who were slowly hearing the news that MLK had been shot], and as soon as Kennedy spoke, I wasn’t scared. I no longer felt white and isolated. I felt united in sadness with everyone else.”
Kennedy talked for just five minutes, yet people who study speeches list his remarks among history’s great speeches. The website American Rhetoric ranks it 17th, much higher than other more famous speeches.
Higgins reports: “At about 9p Kennedy arrived about an hour late. He knew more than his audience knew — he knew King was dead. He stood on a flatbed truck and faced the crowd and laid it out. The crowd gasped in shock. With practically no time to prepare — he had come straight from the airport — and speaking off the cuff, Kennedy told the news with such compassion and empathy that when he finished many in the crowd departed sad though not hateful and with renewed resolve to make the world better.”
RFK believed for the best in people even though he had seen much senseless tragedy in his short life. At every opportunity, he urged Americans to get ready to greet the better version of ourselves.
Here is the transcript of Bobby Kennedy’s speech on April 4, 1968, on 17th and Broadway in Indianapolis:
Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you. I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. On 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 is 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 comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, have 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.
But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; 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.
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country.
We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness, and it’s not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. 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. Thank you very much.
Robert F. Kennedy went on to win the Indiana Democratic primary. He was assassinated two months later in California.