King, Kennedy and Indianapolis

Words that calmed a city, moved a world

Seventy-eight years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth and almost 39 years since his death, but the Nobel Prize winner’s life continues to influence and inspire millions around the world.

King had a huge impact on the civil rights movement in Indianapolis, visiting the city many times and inspiring marches for justice, most notably on July 4, 1964, when citizens took to the streets.

But King and Indianapolis are most intertwined in history through Robert F. Kennedy, who was in the city campaigning for president when news of King’s assassination came on April 4, 1968.

Kennedy arrived in the city at 8:40 p.m. on April 4 after having given speeches at Notre Dame and Ball State. The Indiana primary in May was a hotly contested race between Kennedy, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Robert Branigin, running as a favorite son candidate.

Kennedy’s schedule called for him to visit his state campaign headquarters on East Washington Street downtown and then attend a rally at the Broadway Christian Center at 1654 Broadway.

After Kennedy landed at the airport, he was informed of King’s murder in Memphis. Aides and Indianapolis police officials urged Kennedy to cancel his events, especially the event at 17th Street and Broadway. “The chief of police warned the party not to go into the ghetto; he would not be responsible for anything that might happen,” Kennedy bodyguard William Barry said in an oral history interview for the Kennedy Library.

Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz claimed that the police escort even abandoned Kennedy’s motorcade as it neared the rally, although other accounts dispute this.

Indianapolis Star police reporter Tom Keating caught a ride to the event with two policemen. He described the scene in his book Indiana Faces and Other Places.

“It was a windy night with the temperature in the low 40s and the crowd of maybe 2,500 was restless and impatient,” Keating wrote. “It was widely reported later that many in the crowd did not know of Dr. King’s death until Kennedy informed them. But they knew. There were transistor radios tuned to nothing else and there were tears and anger and frustration before Kennedy arrived.”

Kennedy made his way to an improvised stage near a basketball goal and spoke of King’s death. “The crowd reacted as a wounded animal,” Keating wrote. “There were shouts and cries and a surging, restless need to do something to protest and declaim such an act.”

A film of the event, indeed, shows a frenzied cry after Kennedy announced King’s death. As the shrieks were still ringing out, Kennedy continued.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings,” he said. “He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

“We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust 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. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

Keating wrote, “It was perhaps the most supercharged moment I have ever witnessed.”

Six weeks after giving the speech, Kennedy himself was murdered in Los Angeles. A portion of his Indianapolis speech was inscribed on his tombstone.

Kennedy’s words were page-one news around the world, but coverage of the event was buried in The Star in a story about student leaders endorsing Branigin.

Longtime Star executive Lawrence “Bo” Conner revealed in his memoirs, Star in the Hoosier Sky, that publisher Eugene C. Pulliam had called the newsroom that night and ordered the news of the assassination be played down because King was a “rabble-rouser.”

But Kennedy’s words were widely credited for helping calm the city of Indianapolis. Riots, looting and burning raged in more than 100 cities across America that night but there were only a few minor incidents in Indianapolis.

On a rain-soaked day in May 1994, members of the King and Kennedy families joined President Bill Clinton in dedication of a monument at the sight where Robert Kennedy spoke in 1968.

“A miracle occurred here in Indianapolis,” Clinton said. “The city did not burn because the people’s hearts were touched. Miracles begin with personal choices.”

The statue, of King and Kennedy reaching towards each other, was made of melted guns from a local buy-back program.

Clinton asked, “When they melt that metal down, and they make this statue to the memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, you ask yourselves why don’t we keep giving these guns up? Why don’t we keep melting them down? Why don’t we make a monument to peace where all of us can live together, not with walls coming up but with walls tearing down, so we can go forward together?”

Twelve years after he spoke those words, the question remains unanswered, but the memories of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy will live forever.

Activities honoring the legacy of Dr. King

Madame Walker Theatre

The Madame Walker Theatre Center will commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King in a hour and a half celebration on Monday, Jan. 15, beginning at 12:15 p.m. The program, entitled “Let It Ring,” will feature local vocalists, musicians, poets and the Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre.

“Dr King was America’s greatest champion of racial justice and equality — a man who brought hope and healing to America,” believes Cynthia Bates, president of the Madame Walker Theatre Center. “‘Let It Ring’ will create a forum for Central Indiana residents — black, white, rich and poor — to celebrate the universal, unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence that empowered Dr. King’s revolutionary spirit.”

Admission is free for the event. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. For more information go to www.walkertheatre.com.

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be celebrated throughout the day Monday, Jan. 15 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Lilly House.

Explore the IMA galleries and find works of art created by artists of African descent, participate in docent-led tours, enjoy musical performances, learn about the art of portrait-making and create works of art using a variety of simple materials. The Ground Floor Gallery will feature a display of the IMA’s Community Quilt, to which many visitors contributed fabric and personal stories. The Charles Sumner–James Wormley Copy of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation will be on view through February in Lilly House. Admission is free. Info: www.ima-art.org.

Indiana History Center

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Indiana Historical Society invites families to learn more about this great American leader and his connections to the Hoosier state on Monday, Jan. 15. Through the exhibition Sharing the Dream and activities including crafts, games, musical performances and films, families will learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in Indiana. Admission is free. The Indiana History Center is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

University of Indianapolis

Nationally-known gospel singer and radio host Jearlyn Steele will be the featured speaker and performer at the University of Indianapolis’ annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on Monday, Jan 15. The free 90-minute program will begin at noon in the university’s Ransburg Auditorium, 1400 E. Hanna Ave. Steele will be accompanied by her pianist brother, Billy Steele, a member of the Grammy Award-winning group Sounds of Blackness.

Jearlyn Steele’s vocal career has included touring with Prince, recording with George Clinton and Mavis Staples, and performing on Broadway and in Carnegie Hall. Born in Indiana and now based in Minnesota, she has been a frequent guest on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Each year UIndy celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a special program and a modified class schedule kicks off a schedule of campus events exploring African-American history and achievement that continue through February.

Admission to the MLK Day Celebration is free. For more information call 317-788-3298.


The IUPUI Black Student Union and the Office of Campus and Community Life will present the 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner at 6 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 14, at the Marriott Indianapolis Downtown Ballroom, 350 W. Maryland St.

Featured speaker for the dinner will be Christopher Edley Jr., dean of Boalt Hall, the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law. Edley, the first African-American to serve as dean of a top-ranked U.S. law school, was previously a professor of law at Harvard University. He was co-founder of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, a multidisciplinary research and advocacy think tank focusing on issues of racial justice.

Edley’s publications include the book Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race and American Values, which stems from his work as special counsel to President Bill Clinton and director of the White House Review of Affirmative Action.

Edley is also a member of the national nonpartisan committee planning to issue recommendations for reforming and improving the No Child Left Behind Act as Congress considers its reauthorization next year.

Tickets for the King event are available at the IUPUI Office of Campus and Community Life. Prices are $25 for IUPUI undergraduate students and $40 for faculty, staff, graduate students and community members.


Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, will speak about the “power of one” and King’s legacy on a national and international scale on Sunday, Jan. 14 at 5 p.m. at IU Bloomington in Whittenberger Auditorium, Indiana Memorial Union. Audience members are asked to bring a canned food item. For a comprehensive list of activities on the Bloomington campus, go to www.indiana.edu/~mlkjr.