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New dream for MLK Park announced at commemoration ceremony

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During the anniversary ceremony of Robert Kennedy’s historic local speech, plans were announced to revitalize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in hopes of better sharing the story of what happened in Indianapolis 49 years ago.

On April 4, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,000 people gathered at 17th and Broadway to hear presidential candidate Robert Kennedy give a campaign speech. Kennedy did not show up at the advertised time, and as the crowed waited, word began to spread that something tragic might have happened.

It was rumored that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot, and during a time when news traveled more slowly than it does today, many people were unaware of the shooting or unsure about the rumor’s truth. Kennedy, however, knew that King was dead, and he had been advised by the mayor of Indianapolis to forgo his speech in fear of a race riot. Kennedy ignored the mayor’s warning, put aside his campaign notes and shared the terrible news with the crowd, while encouraging the group of Black and white faces to stay unified while working toward love and justice.

“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 or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country. … 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 who abide in our land,” said Kennedy during his speech, delivered about two months before his life was taken in the same murderous fashion.

There were riots in 100 cities across America that night, but the Black community in Indianapolis stayed eerily quiet as they grieved with loved ones. In the following years, it became a tradition for Hoosiers to visit the location of Kennedy’s speech and reflect on his words, while remembering the legacy of Dr. King. 

When Kennedy addressed the crowd, the neighborhood surrounding 17th and Broadway was mostly Black. Today, the area is one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse parts of the city. 

The Kennedy King Memorial Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to use that unique moment in history to address issues of division and injustice in today’s society, hosts an annual gathering on April 4 to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Community leaders, artists, musicians and local faith leaders shared their reflections with the crowd at this year’s event. Kennedy’s speech was played, and the community gathered to pray and rededicate themselves to the cause of unity and justice. During the ceremony, the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative announced plans to revitalize Martin Luther King Jr. Park into an educational tourist destination that will bring new life into the community.

“Over the next 12 months, we will be working to transform the park. We want to create activities and programs that bring people together in these divided times. We want to make the park more of an attraction than it is now,” said Amy DiStaulo, executive director of the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative.

The Kennedy King Memorial Initiative plans to transform the park with additional landscaping, lighting and educational benefits, with new structures featuring quotes from King. Members of the community have said they look forward to seeing what the park will become. Sheryl Richardson, senior manager of community relations with Indianapolis Parks and Recreation, says Indy Parks has been planning to improve the park for quite some time.

“It was over 10 years ago when we initiated the plan for the park, and then the Kennedy King committee came on board with it. They have actually moved their office into a building (at the park) and they are going to put it out there so we can tell the story as to why the memorial is here,” said Richardson. “It’s important, because the work that both of those gentlemen started is not done. I was the park manager here, and people would call me from all over the United States regarding the memorial, but half of the people who live here are not aware of what happened. It’s very important to bring that knowledge to them and to the youth. Somebody has to start doing the actual work that these men started.”

For DiStaulo, revitalizing the park is the first step toward the goal of creating a space that allows this diverse community to connect with each other.

“Given the anxiety and unrest that is in this country today, 49 years after that night, there are similarities between what was going on in 1968 and what is happening in 2017.

“It’s an opportunity for us to take the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and use them to pull the community together.”

 

For more information on the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative, visit kennedykingindy.org.

 

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