Forgetting King, Kennedy and Indianapolis
It was Friday and the students were in a noticeably high mood even for a Friday. I was teaching in an English, (as in grammar), classroom at an urban Indianapolis area school with a diverse, largely African-American profile. In addition to being the end of a school week, the date was April 4.
Even I had overlooked the date’s historic significance for hours after rising. A lone Facebook entry by a fellow history buff alerted me to the fact that it was 46 years earlier, when I was still six years old, that an assassin murdered America’s civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I took a moment to share with each class the significance of the day’s date. Only two students knew the history of April 4, 1968.
Scheduled to campaign in Indy for the Democratic primary that night was Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. His visit is now immortalized, but the memory of what both he and King were fighting for at the times of their respective deaths has faded.
According to an article in the Indianapolis Star, Kennedy was in Muncie, Indiana at the time of Dr. King’s murder. The Mayor of Indianapolis then, future senator Richard Lugar, urged Kennedy to call off his visit, but the senator from New York rejected the advice.
Upon arrival, Kennedy spoke to a gathered audience at the near-north side of the city. Work of King’s death had not yet reached most of those in attendance who’d been waiting in rain to greet the candidate. Kennedy broke the news, stunning the listeners.
History records the violent reactions that swept through many major cities across the country, most east of the Mississippi. In the western half of the United States, news of Martin Luther King’s death came while most people were still at work, perhaps creating a period of grace in which emotions were processed differently than in the East. Certainly at play due to the time difference was the opportunity for affirmative responses such as those of Los Angeles in which city officials and local activists organized vigils.
Downplayed, if not outright ignored in accounts of that day are the many acts of leadership by Indianapolis community and church activists. Here in Indy, the key role played by Bobby Kennedy should never be downplayed, but neither should the positive influence of local civic leaders, particularly within the African-American community.
Also largely ignored, both then and today, is the role played by Indianapolis’ Chief of Police, Winston Churchill, (I’m not kidding), and civil rights leader, current Congressman John Lewis. Churchill informed Kennedy’s staff that his department couldn’t protect the senator in the event of rioting. Kennedy soon discovered why the police could not, in fact, provide protection. Though the city provided the Kennedy party a police escort from the airport, the escort unexpectedly broke off upon reaching the outskirts of the black neighborhood where Kennedy was to speak. The Indianapolis Police Department would not enter the so-called Black ghetto.
John Lewis, who’d learned of King’s death before most others in the crowd, was adamant that Kennedy speak to the rain-soaked crowd gathered at Broadway Park, (17th and Broadway). Lewis had been meeting with those described by William Barry, a close friend of Kennedy who provided security for the senator, as hostile black militants. Barry had joined those who urged Kennedy to cancel the speech, but Lewis’ insistence otherwise to the candidate only confirmed Kennedy’s resolve.
According to Barry, the hostile black militants “pledged their support for Kennedy following the now famous speech in Indianapolis. No recent accounts I’ve read make any mention of John Lewis’ presence , nor of local community leaders. Overlooked is the critical role these parties played in carrying out the pleas for non-violent reaction to Dr. King’s assassination. Also absent from contemporary recollection is the lack of positive contribution on the part of the Lugar Administration and that of his Chief of Police, (who would be forced to resign a half-dozen years later after wide-spread corruption in his department was made public).
History as Prologue: Are the dreams dead?
It was Robert Kennedy himself who urged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize what was to become the Poor People’s March. Largely forgotten today, King had expanded his focus on ending segregation and voter rights suppression of Blacks to addressing poverty, a common cause shared with Bobby Kennedy. In fact, King was in Memphis at the time of his death in support of striking sanitation workers seeking union recognition and equitable pay following the deaths of two garbage collectors earlier that year. The civil rights leader’s death contributed to the City of Memphis’s recognition of a union for the sanitation workers later in 1968.
Kennedy’s assassination in June of ’68 put the Democrat Party in chaos and Richard Nixon in the White House. It can also be argued the resolve for peace shown in Indianapolis that year was forgotten with a vengeance.
Since the day MLK was murdered and Robert Kennedy spoke so eloquently in Indianapolis, the shared cause of poverty and worker rights in whose name both men died have taken a clubbing in Indiana and the rest of the nation.
Since 1974, teachers in Indiana have not had the right to strike. More than three decades later, most collective bargaining rights were also stripped from Indiana teachers.
Recently, financed largely by out-of-state business lobbies, the Hoosier State passed a so-called Right-to-Work law, (the second such legislation in the state’s labor history).
As of 2012, Indiana children living in poverty had dropped from the national average of 23 percent the year before to 22 percent. Most forget that it was Robert Kennedy’s experiences visiting the Deep South during which he witnessed appalling poverty that helped convince him to campaign against incumbent President Johnson. 46 years later with Mississippi boasting a childhood poverty rate of 35 percent, more than twice the lowest figure of 14 percent shared by only two states, it’s worth asking if anyone even cares to remember King, Kennedy and the promise of justice seen in Broadway Park that sad April night so many years ago?
Perhaps it’s just too shameful to recall.