48 years ago today, a presidential campaign visit may have saved Indianapolis


April 4, 1968 was the date Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. There were riots in many cities that night. There could have been one in Indy, but it was likely stopped because Robert Kennedy happened to be coming here to campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The speech, which some called the greatest speech ever delivered in the city, almost didn’t happen. Mayor Dick Lugar had urged Kennedy to cancel his appearance, which was scheduled for a poor, mostly African-American area at 17th and Broadway. Lugar told Kennedy’s staff that he couldn’t guarantee their safety – there had already been many threats against Kennedy, who was battling Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination after President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election. Kennedy insisted on speaking and insisted on doing so without police protection.

About 2,500 people were waiting for Kennedy, who was running late. There were already rumors spreading that King had been shot, though no one knew whether he was dead – these were the days before instantaneous news via social media and other outlets online. When Kennedy arrived around 9:00pm and began speaking from the back of a flatbed truck, he wasted no time in delivering the bad news amid shrieks and cries. “I am 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.”

He only spoke for five minutes, and the entire speech was either hurriedly scribbled on note cards during his flight to Indy or ad-libbed on site. Kennedy did not directly ask those attending to avoid violence. But according to historian Ray Boomhower’s book “Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary”, Kennedy drew upon an analogy he had not used before – the assassination of his brother, President John Kennedy, four-and-a-half years earlier. “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “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 go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Kennedy won the Indiana Primary just over a month later, on May 7. On June 4, exactly two months after his speech in Indy, Kennedy won the California primary, and he was assassinated that same night.

Today, the area of 17th and Broadway where Kennedy spoke is home to Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park and the Landmark for Peace Memorial, a depiction of Kennedy and King reaching toward each other. Mayor Joe Hogsett, who began his run for mayor with a speech at the memorial, will speak there again during an hour-long program this evening starting at 5:00pm.