The Landmark for Peace Memorial at Martin Luther King Jr. Park – Photo by Ryan Hamlett
While HistoricIndianapolis.com is by no means a platform from which to editorialize on current events whether they be they local, national or global, the way the past few weeks have gone has me thinking that a visit to Martin Luther King Jr. Park at 17th Street and Broadway is in order.
On April 4th, 1968 New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy brought his presidential campaign to Indiana, first making stops at Notre Dame in South Bend and Ball State in Muncie. As he prepared to board his flight to Indianapolis, Kennedy learned of the assassination attempt on Martin Luther King Jr. and of King’s death upon his arrival in Indy. Slated to make a speech in what was derided as a low-income African-American neighborhood, Kennedy was advised to cancel his visit, the Indianapolis chief of police going so far as to warn Kennedy that he could not guarantee his safety should that assembled crowd riot. Upon his arrival to the park he learned that the crowd had not yet learned of King’s death. Opting to speak regardless, Kennedy climbed atop a flatbed truck on which a podium had been placed for him and spoke for just under five minutes.
Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…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.
Martin Luther King 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.
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 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.
But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “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.”
What we need in the United States is not division; 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 within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of 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 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. Thank you very much.
That night, rioting broke out across the country in more than 100 cities, resulting in the deaths of 35 people and injuring 2,500. However, Indianapolis remained quiet, in part due to the calming words of Kennedy. After Robert Kennedy himself would fall from an assassin’s bullet two months later, it was this speech that was etched into his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The park at 17th and Broadway has been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Kennedy and King are remembered in a memorial by Indiana artists Greg Perry (design) and Daniel Edwards (sculptures), a powerful reminder of how calming words can be a salve in incendiary times.