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MLK’s assassination: Why didn’t Indianapolis erupt into violence?

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When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, riots broke out in major cities across the U.S. These demonstrations, later known as the “Holy Week Uprising,” caused 39 deaths, 21,000 arrests and were thought to be the largest show of social unrest experienced in the U.S. since the Civil War.

In Indianapolis, however, the Black community stayed eerily silent. The city credits a moving speech made by presidential candidate Robert Kennedy for the peace, but many Indianapolis residents feel there is more to the story. The Recorder spoke with a local historian to learn more about that noteworthy night and to dig up the real reason that Indianapolis stayed quiet. 

On April 4, 1968, about 2,500 Indianapolis residents gathered at 17th and Broadway streets to hear Kennedy give a campaign speech. When Kennedy arrived he announced to the crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Kennedy’s speech

On April 4, 1968, 2,500 Indianapolis residents, Black and white, young and old, gathered at 17th and Broadway streets to hear Kennedy give a campaign speech. As the group waited for Kennedy’s arrival, speculations regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. began to spread throughout the crowd. It was all hearsay, of course — in the ‘60s confirming breaking news was a little harder than pulling out a smartphone. When Kennedy arrived and announced to the crowd that King had been killed, he confirmed their greatest fears before calling for the diverse crowd to remain unified while working toward love and justice for all.

“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,” Kennedy said during his speech. “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.”

Many residents felt Kennedy’s speech was the reason Indianapolis stayed peaceful. However, the entire Black community wasn’t there to hear him speak. Richard Pierce, a historian of twentieth-century American history who specializes in the urban experience of African-Americans, feels there is more to the story. 

Richard Pierce is a historian of twentieth-century American history who specializes in the urban experience of African-Americans.

Indianapolis’ Response 

“I know the common interpretation is that (Kennedy), through his speech, calmed people, but that’s just so patronizing,” Pierce said. “Indianapolis’ African-Americans never had a history of violence, or outburst or large protest. That just had not been their experience. So, for them to act atypical of their history, that seems unlikely.”

Pierce is the author of “Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis.” In his book, he explores how Indianapolis differs from other Midwestern cities when it comes to racerelations in the public and cultural spheres. 

Pierce says many factors played into the reasons Black Hoosiers did not riot that night. One reason was that the Black community in Indianapolis was spread out, making it harder to come together for unified protests.

“Indianapolis has never really had a large central core, there are places like Martindale-Brightwood, Butler-Tarkington, the Canal and the Near Westside,” Pierce said. “There have been multiple spots where there were Black neighborhoods, but there was not one Black neighborhood.”

Beyond being spread out, Pierce feels the political and socioeconomic structure of the city’s Black community was the main reason the city stayed quiet. 

Up until 1950, he explained, Indianapolis had the largest Black community of all northern cities.Larger cities such as Chicago and Detroit may have had a greater raw number of Black people, but they had a lower percentage overall.

“Indianapolis had to deal with African-Americans in a way that other cities did not,” Pierce said. “African-Americans were more integrated into the business operation of the city. There was a more diverse African-American population in terms of socio-economic background. They had a higher rate of home ownership, a higher level of income than similar communities in the Midwest, so this was not an impoverished community, they had tendrils of economic success.” 

In other words, Black people in Indianapolis had more to lose by rioting. They were forced to ask themselves if negotiating with city leaders would get more results. 

“They (Black people) chose to negotiate, form committees and that type of thing rather than violent outbursts or large-scale demonstrations,” said Pierce. “They were in negotiation mode rather than active protest mode.”

To negotiate or demonstrate?

The most recent large-scale race riot in Indianapolis took place in July of 1995 after Danny Sales, a Black man, was allegedly handcuffed and then beaten by white officers. Protesters broke into a drug store and a pawn shop on College Avenue, and police officers used armored vehicles and tear gas to disrupt the crowd. 

Community members gathered at the City-County Building in Indianapolis hours after learning the two officers who fatally shot Aaron Bailey would not face criminal charges. The event was peaceful despite demonstrators’ overwhelming emotions. (Photo/Ebony Marie Chappel)

Recent local demonstrations have been much more peaceful and include National Walkout Day, March for Our Lives and the Women’s March. Black activists, in particular, came out in full force after the shooting death of Aaron Bailey by an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer. 

When asked if Blacks in Indianapolis are becoming more apt to protest, Pierce said it’s hard to know for certain. 

“Indianapolis’ African-American community was always active, historically,” Pierce said. “It’s just that their work was done quietly and non-assertively. I see more African-Americans in Indianapolis willing to participate, but I would hasten to add that more people of every orientation are more willing to act than they were in the past.” 

Pierce feels both negotiations and demonstrations are important, and that activists should be prepared to use multiple techniques. 

“Demonstrations garner attention but the application of goals often come through negotiations and agreement,” said Pierce. “In the battle, the hunter needs many arrows in his quiver.”

Contact reporter Keshia McEntire at 317-762-7853. Follow her on Twitter @Keshiamc12.

Ethel Kennedy shakes hands with Martin Luther King III after she and her husband Robert F. Kennedy, center, visited his mother Coretta Scott King at her Atlanta home, April 8, 1968. (AP Photo)

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