INDIANAPOLIS — The breaking news around 7 p.m. April 4, 1968 hit our home like a stab. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been gunned down on a Memphis hotel balcony. The civil rights leader and pioneer was dead.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this was only the middle act of a tumultuous year. The Tet Offensive, Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s surprising New Hampshire primary campaign, President Lyndon Johnson’s stunning announcement he wouldn’t run again, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s entry into the Democratic presidential race and the Indiana primary set the stage for the King assassination.
Two months hence, it was Kennedy lying in a pool of blood dying, and further, the riotous Democratic National Convention with a police mob in Chicago’s Grant Park and, finally, Richard Nixon’s razor thin victory over Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in November that laid bare the cornerstone of western civilization convulsing in turmoil with the whole world watching.
Absorbing the King assassination that April night a half century ago, we immediately fixated on what was to come. Just weeks before, King’s initial foray into the Memphis sanitation strike had spun out of control, with chaos besmirching the movement’s non-violent approach to civil rights that was steadily morphing from bus rides and lunch counter protests to a lack of economic opportunity.
We had witnessed the Watts riots of 1965 and Detroit burn in 1967 on the nightly news. You could sense a time bomb that would quickly turn into a national conflagration on that April night in 1968 as dozens of American cities went up in flames.
As we were reminded Tuesday night when the Indiana Historical Society replayed the documentary “A Ripple of Hope,” Indianapolis remained calm after Kennedy’s courageous decision to give a speech at 17th and Broadway. The crowd was a mix of white RFK supporters and neighborhood blacks. Mayor Richard Lugar had only been on the job for three months and warned Kennedy not to go. He was not alone, as Indianapolis police and most of RFK’s own campaign team urged the senator not to go. The exception was John Lewis, a more radical civil rights pioneer who had joined the campaign.
Kennedy would inform the volatile crowd of the tragedy, and then he sought solace. “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust 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,” Kennedy said, talking publicly for the first time about the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy five years before. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”
And then came the lines that created what is considered the greatest extemporaneous speech in American history: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. 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.’”
“How do you quote Aeschylus to black people?” asked Frank A. Thomas, director of preaching and celebration at the Christian Theological Seminary. Many in the crowd had never heard of Aeschylus. Former State Sen. Billie Breaux explained the impact to Indianapolis Monthly: “He seemed to speak to us as human beings and not as people in the ghetto. His sincerity just came through loud and clear.”
Kennedy and King were not close, with historian Ray Boomhower describing a “great barrier” between them. But Thomas explained further, “Both of them had moral imagination. People with moral imagination get killed. When people are tribal, they don’t get killed. When I say how to preach a dangerous sermon, it’s the ones that build bridges across people. They threaten people and call people out of their tribe. With the death of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, I don’t think we’ve recovered yet.”
Kerry Kennedy, who was 10 when her father gave the speech, explained, “When Jack died, a lot of people said to my father when your brother died, ‘I lost all hope.’ And Daddy was always moved by that but he didn’t agree with it. He would always say, ‘If you really loved Jack, you need to learn a lesson of his life and apply it going forward.’”
The real tragedy is that RFK would be slain two months later, forever linking the two in history.
Lewis returned to the scene for the first time in half a century Wednesday morning, a day before President Trump signed a bill commemorating it as a historic site. He was emotional. “This is hard. This is tough for me to come back here,” the Georgia congressman said. “I have not been back to this park.” Of RFK, Lewis said, “Our country would be a better country if he had been elected president and maybe we’d be a little closer to building a beloved world.”
Lewis added, “Fifty years ago this city was peaceful. It was so quiet. The message of love and peace, you have a story to tell. So I say to you, go in peace.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.