Indiana at 200 (97): Indy Calm as Nation Burned
by Andrea Neal
On April 4, 1968, Indianapolis showed its best self.
Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had come to town to hold a nighttime political rally at Broadway and 17th streets, a mostly black neighborhood near Downtown. Indianapolis Mayor Richard G. Lugar was attending a banquet at the Marott Hotel to celebrate Shortridge High School’s trip to the state basketball finals.
It should have been a festive evening for all concerned – but history intervened.
At 6:05 p.m., Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man as he stood on a balcony outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. More than 100 cities burned with protests that night and in the days to follow, but Indianapolis did not. Many credited Kennedy’s presence with defusing a crisis.
Kennedy had learned of the shooting en route from a campaign event in Muncie. Rather than cancel the rally, he decided to discard prepared remarks and speak from the heart. Upon arrival, he saw 2,500 people standing, waving banners. Few were aware of the civil rights leader’s death.
Standing on a platform set up on an outdoor basketball court, Kennedy said: “I have some very sad news for all of you … and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight.”
Screams were heard in the audience and cries of “No! No!”
Kennedy continued, “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.”
The speech lasted only a few minutes. Kennedy reminded the crowd that he also had lost someone dear, his brother President John F. Kennedy, to a white man’s bullet. He concluded by urging people to go home and say prayers for King’s family and the country.
Coincidentally, Kennedy planned to spend the night at the Marott Hotel where the Shortridge basketball dinner took place. Lugar was informed of King’s death at the dinner but did not share the news with others. He waited in the lobby after the banquet until he knew Kennedy had arrived safely.
Lugar asked eyewitnesses how the rally had gone. “They said it was a very beautiful and moving experience, that it had been non-violent and that people were deeply troubled but did not manifest their grief in other ways.”
The next morning the mayor got to work. As reports came in of violence across the nation, he called black civic leaders to his office to discuss the city’s approach to racial equality issues. He met with concerned residents at neighborhood centers and on street corners.
No one could have foreseen that on June 6, just 85 days into his candidacy, Robert Kennedy would suffer the same fate as King. On June 9, Lugar led a memorial service on the plaza of City Hall, noting his admiration for Kennedy’s conduct throughout the campaign.
Kennedy’s soothing words had kept the peace in the hours immediately following King’s death. Mayor Lugar’s outreach to African Americans helped keep the peace in the days that followed.
That significant moment in Indianapolis race relations is remembered to this day at King Memorial Park at 17th and Broadway. In 1995, city officials dedicated a “Landmark for Peace” sculpture near the spot where Kennedy announced King’s death. The two civil rights leaders are sculpted in bronze, reaching toward each other from two curved panels made from melted-down guns collected by police in an amnesty program.
Directions: Martin Luther King Jr. Park is at 1702 N. Broadway, Indianapolis.