Eighty-one-year-old Billie Breaux has never forgotten the events of April 4, 1968. It was the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, and Breaux, a young campaign volunteer, was in the audience when Robert F. Kennedy broke the news to the Indianapolis crowd. Breaux will share her memories of that night in the opening event of OnyxFest, a celebration of African-American voices in theater, at IndyFringe.
“I can see the flowers,” she says, recalling Kennedy’s announcement — and his subsequent speech — which took place at 17th and Broadway Streets. “I can still see the truck; I can still see the people crowded on that stage. And it was a really cold rain. It was so dark.”
Robert F. Kennedy came to Indianapolis during a stop on his presidential campaign. Breaux, a public school teacher at the time, was working as a volunteer on the campaign. That work placed her in a downtown hotel alongside other volunteers busy preparing for Kennedy’s arrival.
“My husband picked me up,” she says. On the way to the rally, the news of King’s death was broadcast over the car radio. “It was one of those things that you hear, but you don’t really know [if it’s true]. So when I got there, I’d heard it but I didn’t really believe it.
“I remember Bobby Kennedy coming in, standing on this truck. He asked us to put our campaign signs down. He wanted to talk to us. And that’s when he told us.”
Breaux says that at that moment, a sigh went through the crowd.
“And he just proceeded to talk to us as a friend, as a father, as someone who really cared. I think it was the first time, I am told, that he ever mentioned his brother being assassinated. But again, it was the sincerity of his speech and also the words that he used. … How many people do you know who would come to talk to ghetto people as if we were people, nothing else, just some people who were hurting?”
Breaux acknowledges that Kennedy’s speech helped bring peace to the streets of Indianapolis rather than the violence that did erupt in other cities after the news of King’s assassination.
“He said we could face this with hate or we could face this with love,” says Breaux. “He asked us to go home and say a prayer for his family, for Martin Luther King’s family, but most of all, for America. It was a calming kind of thing, and I don’t think people were thinking about riots even though I understand that there were people there who were prepared to do just that.”
Breaux was born in Elkhorn, West Virginia, on June 23, 1936. After graduating from West Virginia State, she moved to Indianapolis in 1958 to take a position as a legal secretary with the first integrated law firm in Indianapolis, Richardson, Lewis, Hosea, and Allen.
“I had just given birth to my daughter, and I got this call asking me if I wanted to take this position in Indianapolis,” she says. “I knew no one.”
The firm may have been integrated, but the city was not.
“We all had realized that even though we were not faced with ‘Negroes only’ signs, there were certain places we could not go in Indianapolis,” she says. “I remember the first time I tried to eat at an eating place and had made reservations for it. And we got there of course, they said they couldn’t serve me.”
Breaux says the events surrounding the night of King’s death and Kennedy’s speech had an effect on her subsequent career.
“It encouraged advocacy on my part in terms of speaking out,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking that I would wind up doing anything politically because that was not on my agenda, but once you get involved, saying what needs to be said, people take notice. And I became president of the teachers’ association and used that as something to fall on. Because when you had to go down to the legislature to lobby, I realized how important it was that we become truly involved with the system. Everything that we did was passed by the state legislature; how much money we received, how many hours we taught in the classroom, and all of that.”
Breaux became the first two-term president of the Indianapolis Education Association and became a state senator. Her work was crucial in the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a celebrated holiday in the state.
One of her proudest achievements in Indiana state government is the result of her work on the Indiana Minority Health Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to increased healthcare access for minorities.
“We were able to get that put in the statute of state government so that they would always be funded,” says Breaux.
Billie’s daughter Jean is currently a state senator in the Indiana General Assembly. (This is the first example of mother-daughter succession in the Indiana General Assembly).
Breaux will be one of three panelists speaking about the events of April 4, 1968, and the subsequent impact on their lives at Jabberwocky, presented by IndyFringe and Storytelling Arts of Indiana in partnership with Kennedy King Memorial Initiative.
Her two co-panelists are Jim Trulock, a United Automobile Workers member who managed political campaigns and represented the UAW in the Indiana legislature, and Teresa Lubbers. Lubbers served as commissioner for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, in addition to serving in the Indiana State Senate for 17 years.
This is the first event of the seventh annual OnyxFest, featuring plays by African-American playwrights.
“I often tell young people [who say] I’m not going to get involved in politics, well, whether you want to or not, you’re involved in the political system,” she says. “You’re not born until you have a birth certificate that says you were born on such and such a day. If you don’t have that, forget it.”