Transcript of Reaching Toward Peace: Robert F. Kennedy on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Written by Lindsey Beckley from research using various sources (see show notes for details)
Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins
Recording of Robert Kennedy: And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Lindsey Beckley: Across America, there are schools, parks, and roads all bearing the name of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Many small towns and nearly every big city in the nation has at least one Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school or boulevard. And Indianapolis is no exception. On Broadway Street, north of 16th Street in Indianapolis, you’ll find the 14 acre Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The park features a variety of trees, shelter houses, playgrounds, and even a community swimming pool. It’s also home to a remarkable memorial. Approaching the memorial, you pass between two metal walls. Above you, reaching out from those walls, are the likenesses of two men , one black, one white leaning out over your head, arms outstretched towards each other. As you pass beneath them, you probably recognize one figure as being Martin Luther King Jr. But chances are, unless you know why this memorial was constructed, you wouldn’t recognize the second.
That second figure is that of Robert Kennedy and the memorial is called the Landmark for Peace Memorial. On this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we will explore the events that inspired the creation of this striking piece of public art. And stick around after the main episode for a discussion with Reverend Dr. Frank Thomas. We’ll talk about how these inspiring leaders use moral imagination.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Hello and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier history. Now, it’s time to start Talking Hoosier History. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.
[crowd noises and music]
On March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy began his presidential campaign when he declared:
Voice actor reading from Robert Kennedy speech: “I am today announcing my candidacy for presidency of the United States. I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”
Beckley: He planned to win the Democratic Party’s nomination through the popular support of voters in primary elections, a strategy that had worked for his brother John F. Kennedy 8 years earlier. To this end, he announced that he intended to enter the Indiana Democratic primary on March 27 and arrived in Indianapolis to do just that the following day. Kennedy’s Indiana primary campaign was set to begin on April 4, 1968.
Beckley: Throughout this same time, Martin Luther King Jr. was also in the midst of a campaign, although his was not one for political power. It was one for social change and it was known as the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee, or SCLC, had been planning to expand their mission to include economic equality for some time. During a SCLC staff retreat Dr. King said:
Voice actor reading from King: “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”
Beckley: To that end, King announced the Poor People’s campaign in November 1967 and outlined its goals: more jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and improved education. To accomplish this, he planned a series of protests culminating in a takeover and mass occupation of the National Mall in Washington D.C., where protesters would live in a shanty town for the duration of the rally.
[Transitional music: “We Shall Overcome”]
Beckley: Just as Robert Kennedy headed to Indiana to start his primary campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr headed to Memphis, Tennessee to assist with a strike being conducted by the sanitation workers of the city. The workers had been striking for higher wages and better working conditions for over 11 weeks. While his Poor People campaign was focused on affecting change in Washington, King saw that the objectives of the strike fit well with his own and decided to adopt it as part of the campaign. So, that’s how King and Kennedy came to be involved in two different campaigns in two different states on April 4, 1968. Although they were hundreds of miles apart, the events of that day would forever link the two men in the pages of history.
[Transitional music: “We Shall Overcome”]
Beckley: Both men had busy schedules on Thursday, April 4th. King was sequestered in closed meetings throughout the day, likely with other local and national civil rights leaders. Kennedy gave campaign speeches in South Bend and Muncie before flying to Indianapolis for a rally in a majority black neighborhood. Around 6 o’clock that evening, King was preparing for dinner. Kennedy was in the midst of a speech to the students of Ball State University. King stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and was shot by a sniper. Kennedy stepped onto a plane and received news of the attack on King. King was pronounced dead at around 7:00 pm. Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis and was told that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. He recoiled at the news, almost as though he himself had been struck. He put his hands to his face and lamented, “Oh, God. When is this violence going to stop?”
In the days leading up to April 4th, Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar had shown reservations about allowing Kennedy to hold a rally in the majority black neighborhood at all. He thought it dangerous. But Kennedy and his team felt otherwise. Now, with the news of Kings’ assassination, the Chief of Police advised the group not to attend the rally and warned that his force would not protect them if they did. Kennedy was determined to go. As his car entered the neighborhood, their police escort melted into the background.
As Kennedy and his team arrived in front of the assembled crowd of around 2,000 people, the crowd was festive, if a bit restless. Kennedy was over an hour late and they had been standing in the windy street waiting for some time. Kennedy climbed onto a flat-bed truck, his face “full of anguish.” What followed was an impromptu speech so impactful it’s been credited with “Saving the city of Indianapolis,” a claim we will discuss at some length later. The audio of this speech is one of the most impactful recordings I have ever heard. Kennedy asks off mic if the crowd knew of the assassination, then he delivers the news, and it’s followed by gasps and wailing from the audience. Following is a condensed version of that powerful speech.
Recording of Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis: Ladies and gentlemen, I 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.
[Cries from the crowd]
Recording of Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis: Martin Luther Kind dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. 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. 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 – you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend…and love. What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Recording of Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis: It is not the end violence. It is not the end of lawlessness. And it’s not the end of disorder. But the 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 lands. Let us dedicate ourselves to that. And say a prayer for our country, and for our people. Thank you very much.
Beckley: In the wake of Dr. King’s death, grief and anger spread through the black communities of America. In the days and weeks following, the already high racial tensions came to a breaking point. In over 100 cities across the United States, this resulted in civil unrest, and even rioting. There were over 40 deaths and 4,000 injuries. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville all fairly near Indianapolis and with similar demographics, all had various levels of rioting. Indianapolis, however, did not.
As Robert Kennedy finished his speech in Indianapolis, he urged those in attendance to go home and pray, and many did. Meanwhile, the riots were already starting in Washington D.C. and by the time they ended 4 days later, over 1000 buildings had been reduced to ash and 12 people were dead.
The next day, on April 5th, Baptist Reverend Melvin Girton organized a memorial in honor of Dr. King at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Hundreds of people attended. Sam Jones, the leader of the Indianapolis Urban League addressed Indianapolis’s black community, saying
Voice actor reading Newspaper article quoting Same Jones: “For Indianapolis, I appeal for calm and reason during this period. This should be a time for prayer and soul-searching for all of us.”
Beckley: Meanwhile, violence erupted in Chicago, ending with 11 deaths and 500 injuries.
On Sunday, April 7th, special services were held at St. John’s Missionary Baptist church, where Indianapolis’ Mayor Richard Lugar, on the suggestion of African American leaders, announced that all African Americans in the city were excused from work and school on the day of King’s funeral as part of a day of tribute to Dr. King. Three more commemorative services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church, where Reverend G. Ernest Lynch continued the calls for peace, saying:
Voice actor reading from Newspaper article quoting Lynch: “Martin Luther King was primarily a Christian, and so the motivation of his life was the power of unarmed truth, nonviolent and unconditional love.”
Beckley: On the same day in Baltimore, the unrest in the city exploded into rioting and by the end of the day, the city called in 6,000 troops from the National Guard in an attempt to take back the city.
This pattern continued – leaders of the Indianapolis African American community called their people together to mourn the loss of their spiritual leader. The people gathered. These black leaders called for continued peace. And Peace continued. All the while, other cities were in chaos.
Some sources credit Robert Kennedy and his April 4th speech as the sole savior of the city during what became known as the Holy Week Uprisings. His show of support and call for peace in the face of violence certainly helped soothe the tensions in the crowd – for instance, directly after his speech, he and Civil Rights leader John Lewis attended a meeting and met with a group of people who Lewis described as “black militants.” Lewis said that the young black men entered the meeting with hostility and bitterness, saying that “establishment people” are all the same: “Our leader is dead tonight, and when we need you we can’t find you.” In response, Kennedy said,
Voice actor reading from Kennedy: “Yes, you lost a friend, I lost a brother, I know how you feel…. You talk about the Establishment. I have to laugh. Big Business is trying to defeat me because they think I am a friend of the Negro…”
Beckley: Before the men departed, they pledged their support to the Kennedy campaign.
You can tell from that exchange that Kennedy’s words did have an impact on the African American population of Indianapolis, but to say that he single handedly saved the city – I mean, I found one recent article literally titled “How RFK saved Indianapolis” – and that ignores the huge part played by black leaders in the community.
In the end, it was the strong network of African American leaders in the city, in conjunction with Kennedy’s speech that “saved Indianapolis.” It took more than one man to save the city. It took a variety of people in a variety of positions, all calling for peace in a time of anger and grief. Looking at the Landmark for Peace memorial, you see this sentiment reflected. You see two men , one black, one white, on either side of a divide, reaching towards each other. Reaching towards peace.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been the last episode of season one of Talking Hoosier History. But don’t worry – we’ll be back in a few months with season two. Until then, we’ll leave you with this one last segment.
[Transition music: “We Shall Overcome”]
Beckley: In the run up to the 50th anniversary of this tragic piece of history, I sat down with Dr. Frank Thomas, director of the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. His new book, How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon, uses this speech, along with others, to talk about the use of language to ignite what he calls “moral imagination” to call people to a better future.
Beckley: We’ve got Dr. Frank Thomas here today, and we’re going to be talking his new book, “How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon.” Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Thomas.
Frank Thomas: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor.
Beckley: Your book focuses a lot on moral imagination and I think it’s important probably for the listeners to get an idea of what that is before we go into talking about how people used it, so, uh, could you give us just a brief explanation of moral imagination?
Thomas: Yea, it’s the, the fact that we’re faced with ethical delimas, you know, in much of our lives, in our politics, in our religion. And there are people who are able to find creative alternatives. In essence, it’s the ability to look at ethical delimas and choose options that are in the common good, rather than simply what’s good for one tribe, or one group, rather than the whole.
Beckley: So, in the – in the book, you kind of go chanpter by chapter and look at how different people have utilized the, uh, the moral imagination in different ways. And what fit so well into this particular episode is that you start with Robert Kennedy and his April 4, 1968 speech, which is a great example of, of moral imagination – imagining a world that is better than the one we live in. Could we talk a little bit about some of the particular ways in which he utilized it?
Thomas: Well, I think his entire campaign was about moral imagination. He said that what he wanted to do was to solve the race problem in America, and resolve poverty.
Beckley: Ambitious goals.
Thomas: Yes. But I haven’t heard a single politicial address that since he died. So he was able to see the possibility that we would be a ble to work on these solutions and that they were connected, you know, poverty and race, and that we could solve it. Now, in the speech that he gave on the night of the death of Martin Luther King, he used those themes, and I call it the four qualities of moral imagination. Number one, he showed up. He showed up on 17th and Broadway in an African American community to do a campaign speech, when in fact, King had been killed that very night, and everybody said that, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go. There’s going to be violence.” But he went. When he got there, he had a level of empathy, you know, when you show up and you actually dialogue with people, it creates empathy. The third thing that I say is a part of moral imagination is the wisdom of the ages. He drops some heavy, heavy wisdom. Greek tragedy, a quote from escolous. And then, fourthly, his rhetoric – his speech – lifted up, um, it was uplifting and it touched the chords of wonder, mystery, and hope. I call those the four characteristics of the moral imagination. And in the book I do a very detailed explanation of the speech right here in Indianapolis, Indiana, and I have not seen – very few people generate this level of moral imagination.
Beckley: It definitely, when you listen to it, it’s probably on of the more powerful speeches I’ve heard, especially given that it was rather impromptu. He had a speech prepared and then, all the sudden, that was kind of, you know, ripped away, and he kind of came up with that – I think, on the, on the plane here. It’s impressive to me that he came up with such a powerful and, um, emotive speech, kind of, off the cuff, more than, more than anything.
Thomas: well, I think that, um, he gave people what was in his heart and what was in his imagination. He had been thinking about these things, and he had actually lived – so one of the points in the speech that he says is that he tell the crowd, speaking directly to African Americans in the crowd, that “my brother was killed by a white man.” And he creates a level of empathy and so he had been thinking about these things, and the Greek tragedy and escolous helped him to come to terms with his brother’s death. So, what the crowd is experiencing and he also – the death of Martin Luther King, my sense, or what I say in the book is, he just gave them the hope that he himself had received. So that’s why, to me, it’s so gripping. It is, uh it’s anchored in his soul.
Beckley: It’s not just platitudes and, and him trying to quell an audience – It’s, it’s him really connecting with them and giving them what he’s learned through the death of his brother.
Thomas: Exactly, feeling what he felt, it’s not to get votes, it’s not to be reelected, you know, as a matter of fact, in the first part of the speech, he tells them, “Could you take – could you take them campaign…”
Beckley: The banners.
Thomas: Yea, the banners. “Could you take them down?” And I interpret that as “this is not a political speech.” This is about the direction of our country. This is about what kind of people we want to be. This is not the end of violence and lawlessness, he says, but the majority of people in America want to live in peace, harmony, justice for all. And the audience claps, I mean, it’s an amazing speech. He announces that King has been killed and veious parts of the audience scream because they haven’t heard it. And by the time he finishes, there are two places in the speech where the audience claps, and both times, it’s about speeking to, what I say, the moral imagination. That we can create a society or a nation where white and black can live in harmony with justice for all, with justice for everybody. I call that moral imagination, and I don’t see many people, though we talk the language of it, the implementation of it has to do with showing up.
Beckley: and I think that kind of goes to, uh, the point about using moral imagination for social and political change – it doesn’t only have to be a spur of the moment, talking out of tragedy or, you know, a preacher at the pulpit, but it can be our political leaders giving us a picture of a better world and telling us how they’re going to accomplish it.
Thomas: Exactly. And also, inspiring us. So, if our leaders, we say in the book, I quote an author, who says that imagination rules the world, and we become who our leaders imagine us to be. And so, if our leaders don’t have moral imagination, if our leaders can’t envision equality, see, the argument I make is this: if you can’t see people as equals, in your mindset, you must see hierarchy – one group has to be over another group, or, or…then you set up a moral hierarchy. Well, this group is over that group. Then, after you establish the moral hierarchy, then you create laws to enforce the moral hierarchy. And then, you find religious leaders to bless the laws – and it’s a whole system.
Beckley: it’s kind of backwards from what it should be in a just and equal society.
Thomas: Exactly. Exactly. So, this whole concept of moral imagination is very critical and we see it exhibited around us every day: there is such a lack of moral imagination, even if we use the language, we do not have the, the concrete steps or the showing up. So one of the things that I say is that a lot of us will pontificate about what’s needed in neighborhoods that we’ve never been in. You’ve never shown up. You never talked to the people. How you gonna come up with solutions for a community, and you don’t go to the community, you don’t talk to any of the people in the community, you don’t put any people of the community on your leadership team- on your cabinet – on your board of trustees. But you are spouting off what we need to do for the community. It’s a lack of moral imagination. So the people experience it as paternalism.
Beckley: So, when you look at what you want people to take away from this book – obviously, the book is written towards preachers, and people of the clergy, but I found it very enlightening and there are a lot of things that everyday people, and leaders, and political leaders can take away from it as well. Could you sum up what you want people to take away from this book?
Thomas: Well, thank you so much. I-it is not just meant for the clergy, though I am a clergy person, and so I kind of write, and I think that the religious and spiritual community has a tremendous amount to say about moral imagination that we’re not saying. But what I want people to take away is really four things – the four qualities of moral imagination. You have to show up. You must show up. You cannot pontificate about people that you’ve never shown up to their community, you’ve never sat down and had food with them, you’ve never shared with them. So you have a bunch of uninformed information when you have not actually talked to a community – a community different than your community. Second, uh, when you get there and listen more than speak, when you go to learn more than you go to teach, or you go to learn and teach, then you develoep empathy, and empathy creates bridges for new decisions about peace and justice. When you start to work on new directions for peace and justicve, you’re going to have to anchor that somewhere. In a traditioin. In spiritual traditions – call it the wisdom of the ages – in political arenas, the constitution, the Bill of Rights – you have to anchor it somewhere. You know, so, you’re going to need the wisdom of the ages, and the fourth thing I want people to take away from it is that our talking, our speech, our, um, our rhetoric, our sermons, have to lift and inspire people and have to put them in touch with wonder, mystery, and hope.
Beckley: If people are interested in finding the book, uh, where, where can they find it.
Thomas: Uh, it’s on Amazon, and you can kindle it, you can get the physical copy.
Beckley: I’ve got it on my phone here.
Thomas: Well, I’m glad, see, I have it in a physical copy but I don’t have it on the phone yet. But I would hope that people would take it and maybe make it a discussion in some groups, so people could discuss it and, um, I did a presentation recently for a group here in Indianapolis, and it was a wonderful time we had, just, everybody doesn’t have to agree, but it’s the discussion that’s the critical thing.
Beckley: It’s kind of the start of something new there.
Thomas: Right, right, right.
Beckley: Well, thank you so much for coming in and talking with us today. We really really appreciate it.
Thomas: well, thank you so much. It’s my honor to be here. Thank you for taking the book, reading the book, and taking it so very seriously and thoroughly. Thank you.
Beckley: As always, thanks to Jill Weiss-Simins, producer and sound engineer extraordinaire, and Justin Clark, the voice of Newspapers here on the podcast. Remember, find us on Facebook and follow us on twitter at @TalkHoosierHist and to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts! Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for Reaching Toward Peace: Robert F. Kennedy on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Boomhower, Ray. Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2008.
Schlessinger, Arthur. Robert Kennedy and His Times, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
“City Pays Tribute To Dr. Martin Luther King.” The Indianapolis News, April 5, 1968.
“City To Hold Memorials For Dr. King.” The Indianapolis News, April 6, 1968.
“King Moves to Confrontation.” The Leaf-Chronicle, April 4, 1968.
“Leaders Of Races Urge Calm After Tragedy.” The Indianapolis News, April 5, 1968.
“Negroes Excused For King Funeral.” The Indianapolis News, April 8, 1968.
The King Center Archive: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive
Martin Luther King, Jr. encyclopedia: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_poor_peoples_campaign/
Poor People’s Campaign: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/
The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Robert F. Kennedy on Death of Martin L. King” Historical marker file.
Dr. Frank Thomas, director of the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, joined us on this episode for a discussion of his book “Preaching a Dangerous Sermon.”
Jill is the sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. She does everything from set up the recording equipment to selecting the music featured in each episode as well as actually mixing.
Justin Clark, project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project, voiced all newspaper clips in this episode.