On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of John F. Kennedy, stood on a podium in what is now Kennedy-King Park at 17th and Broadway streets. His face was stern, his eyes filled with tears, his demeanor calm. He looked out to the predominantly black crowd and shared the disturbing news. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The crowd was silent, in a state of shock. What was originally planned to be a campaign rally for Kennedy’s presidential run became a time of mourning. Kennedy did not give a campaign speech that evening. Five people in attendance shared their thoughts on the day, what Dr. King and Kennedy meant to them and where race relations are now — 50 years later.
At the time of Kennedy’s speech, Loran Morris was a high school senior, attending school just a block and a half from where the speech took place. “We had gotten out of school early, it was a nice sunny day,” she recalled. “I was familiar with [Robert’s] brother and his policies, so I was eager to hear him speak.”
Morris did not expect what happened when Kennedy stood to address the crowd. Once the crowd was told King was assassinated she says all you could hear were people mourning. “We were shocked,” she said. “People fell on their knees. I was close to a tree and just clung to the tree. We all hollered out, screamed, cried. It was a loss. We were scared, we thought ‘What’s going to happen now?’”
Kennedy’s speech that evening was short. Morris says she remembers going home and feeling numb. She couldn’t imagine how things would improve for Black people in America. To this day, she still feels that way and is disheartened by the amount of progress we’ve made as a society. “I think things are worse,” she said. “We’ve just gone backwards with our beliefs and values. We’ve lost so many lives that shouldn’t have been lost. I’m just keeping my faith and praying all the time for peace all over the United States and for people to know that they are cared about. I’m hurting for all people going through something and hoping that things will change.”
As president of the Young State Democrats in 1968, Michael Riley wanted to hear Kennedy speak because he felt Kennedy was the most promising candidate in the upcoming presidential election. He wanted to be part of Kennedy’s campaign and help get him elected.
Riley did not hear a political speech that day, but what he did hear still sticks with him. “[Kennedy] was an extremely compassionate and kind man and I always felt like he was saying we’re all in this together,” Riley said. “He had experienced losing his brother who was also assassinated and so he didn’t want the assassination of Dr. King to destroy what we could build as a country. He was a voice of reason in a very emotional time.”
Jim Trulock decided to attend Kennedy’s campaign speech to hear his plans for automobile workers. At the time, he worked in a Chrysler electrical plant and was a member of the United Auto Workers union. When he arrived to the park where Kennedy was set to speak, not many people were present yet. He wasn’t there long before a friend ran up to him and alerted him King had been shot. A few minutes later, she returned and said he had died. “It was the strangest feeling of anger, shock and grief all mixed together and I think everyone felt that,” he said.
As Trulock turned his attention to Kennedy’s speech, he was glad to hear him focus on uniting the people in the crowd. “What we heard from Kennedy that night had nothing to do with any prepared speech,” Trulock said. “He spoke from the heart. At the time a good half of the crowd hadn’t heard of Dr. King’s assassination, so when he made that announcement you could hear this gasps amongst the crowd. I’ve heard a lot of speeches in my life, I’m 80 years old, but it was the best speech I’ve heard to this date.”
As far as the progress society has made in the last 50 years, Trulock is optimistic. He likes to borrow a saying from a mentor of his: Anything worth doing is worth doing imperfectly. In other words, just because we won’t do things right all the time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. “Things have changed for the better, but we still have a long way to go. It’s not like there’s a finish line, we’ll always have to keep working on this as best as we can,” he said. “I think what we need to do is listen to each other. Hear what people want and need and try to address those needs in a positive way.”
Abie Robinson’s life has truly come full circle. Not only was he present for Kennedy’s speech 50 years ago, but he now manages the park where it occurred. He’s a senior program coordinator for Indy Parks and helps develop and implement health and wellness programs for senior citizens.
Robinson admits his reason for attending the rally had nothing to do with politics. “I was a 24-year-old young man, I was hoping to meet some girls there,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking it’d be such a historical moment.” He may have come for different reasons, but he says he left truly changed.
No rioting, looting or violence occurred in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. However, there were dozens of other cities where these things did take place. Many, including Robinson, believe Kennedy’s speech and temperament changed the mindset of those who were angry. “I was thinking revenge right away,” he said. “But then the words (Kennedy) used and his calmness made me understand the right response in the face of Dr. King’s assassination. His speech made me reflect back on what Dr. King stood for and that was peace and getting together and creating change. It made me realize one person could make a difference.”
Former IPS educator and state senator Billie Breaux made plans to attend Kennedy’s speech because she was looking for solace during what had felt like a turbulent time for her. She had grown up in the civil rights era and seen a man she admired, John F. Kennedy assassinated and thought his brother may be the right man to pick up where JFK left off.
Unfortunately, Robert Kennedy also was assassinated before he could continue his brother’s legacy. Still, he left an impression on Breaux. “The thing I will always remember about that night is that he was very small in stature, but he had a calmness and coolness about him that set the stage,” she recalls. “I will always remember how he spoke to us as individual people, not as black, or poor, but people who were suffering just as he was suffering. I thought that was so unique; for him to speak to us and let us know that he felt our pain and that it mattered.”
Upon leaving Kennedy’s speech, Breaux says she was in a state of shock. She noted that while many in the crowd were angry and ready to cause harm, Kennedy’s speech gave those hurting a chance to stop and process before doing something they’d regret.
Once the initial shock faded, Breaux got to work. She was an active member of the teacher’s association, which was one of the first groups to negotiate a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. The association also started a MLK dinner for people in the community who had the same goals and aspirations as Dr. King. To this day, the dinner still takes place and often sells out every year.
Abie Robinson witnessed Robert Kennedy’s speech after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. (Photo/Curtis Gyunn)