The evening that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis, Tenn., while many other cities burned with an anger stoked over generations of white hands delivering injustice to people of color, white U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy delivered news of the assassination to a crowd gathered at a near northeast-side park in Indianapolis.
The people of Indianapolis did not riot.
Kennedy, scrapped his scheduled campaign speech and delivered an impromptu assessment.
He said his brother's assassination taught him to understand feelings of hatred and distrust. "But we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times," he said.
Then, he quoted his favorite Aeschylus: "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."
He later concluded: "(T)he 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 that 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."
On the evening of April 4, 2012, 44 years after that defining day in American history, people of Indianapolis (and beyond) gathered back at that park at the corner of 17th and Broadway, now named Martin Luther King Jr. Park, to commemorate Kennedy and King as peacemakers. Many of the participants remembered that 1968 night, a few of them saw Kennedy's speech in person.
A transcendent sculpture sheds the bonds of its metal shell, standing at either side of a central walkway. Across the divide, the figures of King and Kennedy reach into the sky, shedding the earthly legacies depicted by their outlines, literally cut out from the base wall, reaching down in opposite directions, one imagines, to help those less fortunate.
The Kennedy – King Memorial Day celebration is a longstanding tradition laid down by several '60s-era minds, such as Rev. Dr. Andrew J. Brown and former Indiana Secretary of State Larry Conrad. Retiring State Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, who back in those days was part of Indy's Black Radical Action Committee, carried the mantle the founders passed on to him and, he informed the audience gathered Wednesday, that he is entrusting a new generation with "the shared vision" that the park would stand as "a national destination in support of peace and non-violence."
His words warrant an extended quote:
The stars aligned and we lost a prince of non-violence and we were honored to hear the news from another person, who had evolved to a position of nonviolence, who told us who were assembled here of the assassination of Dr. King.
In June of 1968, that person who told us was also struck down by an assassin's bullet in California.
If you look at the life and the work of both of those men, they were proponents of what was written by our forefathers in our Constitution, the metric we use to measure the attainment of that more perfect union is when every person in this nation enjoys the right to life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness.
They dedicated their life, one from government, one from the private sector, if you will, the advocacy community, the faith community. The stars aligned and they crossed in this community. What is our purpose? Our purpose is to continue the legacy in pursuit of that more perfect union.
We haven't got there yet. We're still a little too classist, a little too racist, a little too sexist in this nation.
But Dr. King ... he spoke about talking to a retired minister in Alabama (who said) "Well, Doc, things ain't what they ought to be, things ain't what there're gonna be, but thank God things ain't what they was."
Event organizers surprised Crawford with the service's first Sprit of Truth and Justice Award in recognition of his service to Kennedy-King Memorial Day and the values it imparts.
"I still believe you're not supposed to thank a person for doing what they're supposed to do," he said.
In honor of the theme "Making the Dream a Reality," five women and one man (accepting on a woman's behalf) received Trailblazer Awards: Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman;Indianapolis City-County Council President Maggie Lewis; Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Marion Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores, juvenile court presiding judge; Justice Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana; and Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever, WNBA (represented by Quinn Buckner, the team's vice president of communications).
With Gov. Mitch Daniels off to Israel, Skillman held the state's helm as the highest-ranking officer in the state.
"We have a treasure here – this park, the monument, this commemoration, they're all very important tools that help us pass down very important lessons to future generations," Skillman said.
She recalled "a volatile time in our nation's history ... many of us can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, even though I was a teenager at the time."
Her words, like Crawford's, call for ample space:
The day we lost Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, here on these grounds, did a great service for our city and our state. His speech will always be remembered as one of kindness and comfort... It was a steady voice that kept so many grieving hearts from acting out in a riot ... He wanted to remind the listeners of Dr. King's desire ... "to replace that violence and stain of bloodshed that has spread across the land with an effort to understand with compassion and with love."
Now, many people believe that impromptu speech was one of the greatest in American history – that tribute to Dr. MLK. I think it's hard to argue with that. It was heartfelt. It was focused like a laser beam on truth ... maybe more importantly on the hope we all needed to hear. We heard Robert Kennedy's call to put off division and violence and to take up wisdom and love. His words changed our capital then and changed many hearts. Those words still ring true today and I know they will for generations to come. But I think we'll always need to be reminded to do what is right. I think we still have our work cut out for us on that front.
Skillman holds the most duties of any number two state executive in the country, said emcee and award-winning broadcaster Amos Brown, citing the National Lieutenant Governors Association. She is Indiana's first elected lieutenant governor.
The women surrounding her also sit at the highest levels of leadership in the state, victors over countless barriers and struggles.
In acknowledging their storied accomplishments, Crawford said, "Our attitude determines our altitude... I think of dream keepers because I know all these ladies achieved in spite of... They let their attitude determine their altitude."
The mantle of righteousness and justice
During this Holy Week, as Christians prepare for Easter, the theme of resurrection is ever present.
Both Kennedy and King lived as men who put their faith to work. Their legacies of peace, equality and justice are everlasting — a testament to the Bible's account of the ascension and everlasting life that the men's ultimate inspiration, Jesus Christ, found after he broke free from his tomb.
King spoke about God's promises in Memphis the night before he was shot.
King said that, like Moses did after years of leading the post-Egyptian Israelites through the desert, he had made it to the mountain top. (In the Book of Deuteronomy 34: 1-5, the Lord told Moses that he could see promised land of milk and honey over the mountain top, but he could not go down into the land. His work was done.)
Yesterday's memorial opened with audio excerpts of King's powerful and prophetic speech:
... I've been to the mountain top ... Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now.. I just wanna do God's will and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!
So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
The power and courage and success of the nonviolence preached by Jesus and his followers in the face of debased humanity continues to offset (though not erase) the legacies of shame perpetuated throughout history in Jesus' name.
"Lord make me an instrument of your peace ... "
These messages of peace are not exclusive to Christianity.
Imam Michael Saahir of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center also delivered a call that resonates with legions of faithful people following traditions that resonate within a variety of spiritual frameworks.
"We have with us across political, racial, gender lines," he said. "We have here under this tent (an example) of what our founding fathers were trying to say ... We are the people. We are the ones, we have to be the ones to make that a part of us – in every fiber of our bodies to those who are not here to make (the dreams of equality and justice) come true."
The forest through the trees
Perhaps half of the people in attendance under the tent in the park Wednesday were elected officials or officials running for office.
Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Olgen Williams talked about how the legacy of non-violence changed his course in life:
In 1968, I was in Chu Lai, Vietnam an angry, black man who listened to Indianapolis on the news, upset, hating, wanting to do something other than what I was doing fighting in Vietnam.
I came back to America still a hater and full of hate. But the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, came into my life. Peace came into my life and I began to read Martin Luther King's speeches and I began to become more calm and more peaceful ... peace and love and wisdom is the right way.
I read Sen. Kennedy's speech; it brings even more closure.
Peace, love wisdom, justice for all, working together makes a difference in any city. This park..this is great legacy to peace and nonviolence. The whole world needs to realize that we can live in harmony, we can live in peace. And we need it more than ever before.
No elected official, no appointed official no corporate sponsor, but all of us working together.
Congressman André Carson, a Democrat from Indiana's Seventh District, busy at work in Washington, sent his sentiments via MP3.
Invoking the shootings on canal, of Trayvon Martin, and Officer David Moore, Carson said, "We have a choice: we can become more divided and angry or we can come together and ensure better days for our communities."
"To tame the savageness of man"
To express the sentiments of the occasion though art, drama, song and poetry, several talented citizens stepped to the fore.
Herron Charter High School sophomore Brandon Lott opened his poem with the following lines:
"Some Kings rule their kingdoms sitting down, surrounded by luxury, soft cushions and fans. But this King stood strong, stood proud, stood tall."
Herron High senior, Jazmine Capers, soon to be Earlham College-bound, struck next with a verse of "Amazing Grace" and vocalist Keith Hayes brought people to their feet with his "Make Them Hear You."
Pastor Thomas L. Brown of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, whose father, Rev. Andrew J. Brown, stood with Crawford in the park on the night Kennedy spoke.
"I was on the highway in Arkansas trying to get to Memphis," the younger Brown said as he prepared to dismiss the crowd. "And when they said King had been shot, I turned right around and went back down into Arkansas 'cause it was getting hot on the highway."
Actors offered excerpts from Indiana Historical Society's ongoing "You Are There" installation, which as Amos Brown said, "puts Disney to shame" recreating historical events in the state, including Kennedy's April 4, 1968, speech.
And from the spring break Dream Keepers Camp, which focuses on sportsmanship, conflict resolution and diversity, Trent McDonald, of Cold Springs Academy's class of 2018, stepped to the mic to share his thoughts on social justice:
"To treat all people no matter color gender or social background ... to me it means carrying on Dr. Martin Luther King's dream — he wanted us all to have equal rights. It means treating each other with equal respect."