Remembering Robert F. Kennedy's Speech After Martin Luther King's Assassination

Mar 31, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 11:19 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Almost 50 years ago, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And his loss set off riots in dozens of U.S. cities, but not in Indianapolis. As Jill Sheridan of member station WFYI reports, that's in part because of a short impromptu speech made by a stumping presidential candidate who would himself be assassinated two months later.

JILL SHERIDAN, BYLINE: In the spring of 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was late in entering the primary race for the Democratic presidential nomination. His campaign was gearing up in Indiana. On April 4, 16-year-old Teresa Lubbers tagged along with her older brother to a campaign rally. It was a cold, wet early spring evening. Lubbers says there were hundreds in the predominantly African-American crowd.

TERESA LUBBERS: We were in the back, sort of - so I had a view of sort of the whole crowd.

SHERIDAN: She was not alone in experiencing this shock from the news Kennedy delivered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight.

(SCREAMING)

SHERIDAN: Abie Robinson was in the crowd that night, too. He was 24.

ABIE ROBINSON: The shift in my emotions swung from very angry when I heard the news about Martin Luther King's assassination to coming to the understanding of what Martin Luther King stood for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice.

SHERIDAN: City and state leaders had urged Kennedy to cancel his appearance, but he refused to. The words he delivered from the back of a flatbed truck didn't come from a speechwriter.

ROBINSON: He had it written on a little piece of paper that I'd seen him have folded up in his hand. He was able to connect and so that not only you heard the words that he said, you believe that he felt the words that he said.

SHERIDAN: Reggie Jones was 27 and had brought a group of young men to hear Kennedy. He remembers fearing their reaction to the news.

REGGIE JONES: So I took the guys back to School 63 on the South Side, and we played basketball from the time we got there, maybe about 10 - 10:30, to about 2 in the morning.

SHERIDAN: Abie Robinson says there were others like Jones who worked to keep the peace that night.

ROBINSON: There were leaders from different parts of the city that were in touch with the people who would have been in that element that would be burning down your own neighborhood.

SHERIDAN: There was unrest in more than 60 U.S. cities - what's now known as the Holy Week Uprising. But Indianapolis was relatively calm.

RAY BOOMHOWER: I think words matter, and Kennedy's words mattered quite a bit that evening.

SHERIDAN: Historian Ray Boomhower wrote a book about Kennedy's primary campaign.

BOOMHOWER: He was wearing an overcoat that had belonged to his brother. And this was really the first time he had made any kind of public statement about his brother's death. You know, he said, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

SHERIDAN: Boomhower says Kennedy appeared to draw from his own grief as he quoted a Greek poet.

BOOMHOWER: And the words that he spoke, I think, had a particular impact to the crowd when he said, even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: Falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

SHERIDAN: Those words were spoken right here in this Indianapolis park now named for King. A large memorial sculpture has two statues - Kennedy on one side of a path and King on the other, hands stretched out towards each other. Reggie Jones finds that comforting.

JONES: Still reaching out - that's the hope. In spite of everything that you see, there's still hope.

SHERIDAN: For NPR News, I'm Jill Sheridan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.