Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primaryby Ray E. Boomhower
On April 4, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., arrived in Indiana to campaign for the Indiana Democratic presidential primary. As Kennedy prepared to fly from an appearance in Muncie to Indianapolis, he learned that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot outside his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Before his plane landed in Indianapolis,… See more details below
On April 4, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., arrived in Indiana to campaign for the Indiana Democratic presidential primary. As Kennedy prepared to fly from an appearance in Muncie to Indianapolis, he learned that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot outside his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Before his plane landed in Indianapolis, Kennedy heard the news that King had died. Despite warnings from Indianapolis police that they could not guarantee his safety, and brushing off concerns from his own staff, Kennedy decided to proceed with plans to address an outdoor rally to be held in the heart of the city's African American community. On that cold and windy evening, Kennedy broke the news of King's death in an impassioned, extemporaneous speech on the need for compassion in the face of violence. It has proven to be one of the great speeches in American political history.
Marking the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's Indianapolis speech, this book explains what brought the politician to Indiana that day, and explores the characters and events of the 1968 Indiana Democratic presidential primary in which Kennedy, who was an underdog, had a decisive victory.
"Well-written and handsomely packaged in the style of Kennedy's campaign flyers, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary will likely stand as the definitive historical account of that contest.... this book is a solid scholarly contribution to the continued debate over the significance of Kennedy's presidential candidacy..." —Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Winter 2008
"This book is a must-read for anyone interested in presidential politics." —Indiana Magazine of History
"Boomhower's book provides a good account of the Indiana primary, an account that is at its best as history. It makes very good use of archival materials, blending primary and secondary sources into a compelling narrative. The narrative itself is rich with detail and deepens our understanding of several key aspects of the campaign." —Rhetoric and Public Affairs
"Boomhower's account of the 1968 Indiana primary is a highly readable monograph that contextualizes the campaign quite well.... The book is a valuable contribution to RFK scholarship and sheds new light on the inner workings of one of Kennedy's most important political endeavors." —Presidential Studies Quarterly
"Boomhower offers a compelling look at a brief few weeks in 1968 when Hoosiers found themselves at the center of a dynamic struggle over a Presidential nomination and the future direction of our nation. Along the way, he gives readers insight into the tensions, tragedy and emotions of a singular moment—Senator Robert Kennedy's remarks in Indianapolis just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot—and provides a deeper understanding of one of the more significant events in our nation's long, contentious civil rights journey." —Evan Bayh, former U.S. Senator
"A first-rate book: well-researched, balanced, weaving a compelling narrative of an inspiring American and an idealistic time." —Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative and author of How Congress Works and Why You Should Care
"You do not have to be from Indiana to read this book. Insights on politics and electioneering in the United States abound." —William Doherty, H-Net Reviews
"Boomhower offers a compelling look at a brief few weeks in 1968 when Hoosiers found themselves at the center of a dynamic struggle over a Presidential nomination and the future direction of our nation. Along the way, he gives readers insight into the tensions, tragedy and emotions of a singular momentSenator Robert Kennedy's remarks in Indianapolis just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King had been shotand provides a deeper understanding of one of the more significant events in our nation's long, contentious civil rights journey." Evan Bayh, former U.S. Senator
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Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary
By Ray E. Boomhower
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Ray E. Boomhower
All rights reserved.
A Landmark for Peace
The Indianapolis parks and recreation department is responsible for administering approximately two hundred properties stretching over more than eleven thousand acres in the central Indiana city. One of these properties, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park at 1702 North Broadway Street on the city's near north side, has within its fourteen acres the usual recreational components for an urban park—a basketball court, playground, softball field, picnic shelters, and an outdoor pool. As Center Township residents while away the hours at play, their eyes are no doubt sometimes drawn to one of the park's most intriguing features, a sculpture titled A Landmark for Peace created by Indiana artist Greg Perry and placed in the park in 1995.
The memorial, which is located at the park's south end and includes in its construction guns melted down in a gun-amnesty program, features two curved panels facing one another. Near the top of each panel is a figure of a man with an arm and hand outstretched toward, but failing to touch, the other. The men depicted in the sculpture—neither of whom is alive to help bridge the racial gap that still exists today—are the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the former junior U.S. senator from the state of New York Robert F. Kennedy. By chance and the vagaries of a political campaign, the two are forever bound together in the park, and in Indiana and American history as well.
The predominantly African American crowd that gathered at Seventeenth and Broadway streets for an outdoor rally on a cold and windy evening on April 4, 1968, appeared to be in a festive mood. And why not? Those milling about the Broadway Christian Center's outdoor basketball court—an audience estimated at anywhere between one thousand and three thousand people—would be among the first in the Hoosier State to hear from Robert Kennedy, who had announced his run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination on March 16. With his late entry into the race, Kennedy had decided to take his case directly to the people. "Our strategy is to change the rules of nominating a president," noted Adam Walinsky, Kennedy's chief speechwriter. "We're going to do it a new way. In the streets."
Kennedy had selected Indiana as his first test before Democratic voters. In the state's May 7 primary he would face two challengers, Indiana governor Roger D. Branigin, running as a favorite son, and U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy, whose strong showing in the New Hampshire primary against incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson—along with Kennedy's entrance into the race—had helped convince Johnson to abandon his reelection effort. At the end of a March 31 speech to the nation, in which he announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, Johnson had stunned everyone by stating: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
Those who waited for long hours huddled against the cold to hear Kennedy speak would long remember what they heard. As volunteers registered voters at nearby tables, a band played, and spectators waved banners and signs touting Kennedy's candidacy, two sixteen-year-old North Central High School students, Mary Evans and Altha Cravey, milled about with the rest of the audience, who were, as one participant described it, "packed in like sardines." Like many young people during that political season, Evans and Cravey had become transfixed by the antiwar candidacy of McCarthy, the Minnesota senator who had decided to take on Johnson to protest America's involvement in Vietnam. Inspired by their growing disgust with the war and McCarthy's commitment to ending the conflict, the local students had volunteered to work for the senator's campaign in Indiana. Despite their allegiance to McCarthy, both, because of their keen interest in politics and public policy, wanted to hear what Kennedy had to say. Neither had heard the news that Dr. King had been killed.
There were some in the throng, however, who had grown tired of the choices offered by America's two political parties and were looking for more radical change. A number of black activists had learned of King's death and were gathering support in the African American community for violent action. William Crawford, at this writing an Indiana state representative from Indianapolis, was then a member of a Black Power organization known as the Radical Action Program. He and his friends were, he recalled in 1994, very close to resorting to violence as a way to register their grief and rage at the loss of the civil rights leader. One estimate had close to two hundred militants sprinkled throughout the crowd. Those responsible for local arrangements for the speech, including respected Black Power leader Charles "Snooky" Hendricks, grew so fearful that Kennedy's life might be in danger that they recruited people to check the area for possible assassins. "There was a lot of anger and frustration that Dr. King, whose message was one of nonviolence and working within the system, was the victim of that kind of racism," Crawford remembered.
The potential for a disturbance also had some Indianapolis power brokers worried. Michael Riley, an Indianapolis attorney and chairman of the Indiana Committee to Elect Robert Kennedy, had received a phone call from Mayor Richard Lugar urging that the rally be canceled for fear that a riot would break out when the crowd learned King had been murdered. City officials had even told Riley they would place fire hoses across the streets leading to the rally site to stop people from attending. Winston Churchill, the city's chief of police, warned the Kennedy campaign staff that he could not guarantee the senator's safety if he decided to go ahead with his speech.
Before traveling to Indianapolis, Kennedy had made two other campaign stops that day, one at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend and the other at Ball State University in Muncie. During a question-and-answer session following the Ball State speech, a young black man had asked the candidate whether he could justify his belief in the good faith of white people toward minorities. Kennedy answered that the majority of people in the country wanted to do "the decent and the right thing." As Kennedy boarded the plane for Indianapolis to formally open his campaign headquarters on East Washington Street and to make an appearance at the outdoor rally in the heart of the city's African American community, Marshall Hanley, one of his key supporters in east-central Indiana's Delaware County, informed him that Dr. King had been gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King had traveled to Memphis to support the city's striking black sanitation workers and their attempts to organize a union. After he arrived at Indianapolis's Weir Cook Airport, Kennedy learned that the Nobel Prize–winning activist had died. Thinking back to the answer he had given in Muncie, a distraught Kennedy told a Newsweek reporter that it grieved him that he had just attempted to placate the young man only to have him learn later that a white man had shot his race's "spiritual leader."
Kennedy decided to cancel his stop at his campaign headquarters, but to proceed on to Seventeenth and Broadway as planned. He did, however, send his pregnant wife, Ethel, on ahead to the Marott Hotel on North Meridian Street. After making a brief statement on King's death to the press assembled at the airport, Kennedy climbed into a car that would take him to the rally, jotting down some notes on what he might say on the back of an envelope. John Bartlow Martin, an Indianapolis native and close adviser to Kennedy during the Indiana primary campaign, had also returned from dinner to the Marott, where he and Kennedy speechwriter Jeff Greenfield were to work on potential statements on the tragedy for Kennedy to deliver to the press after the rally. Outside the hotel Martin saw a local police inspector parked at the curb. He went up to the car and asked the officer if the candidate should go ahead and address the crowd. "He said, with a fervor I imagine was rare in him, 'I sure hope he does. If he doesn't, there'll be hell to pay,'" Martin remembered.
Arriving at the rally, Kennedy, wearing a black overcoat that had once belonged to his brother John, climbed onto a flatbed truck located in a paved parking lot near the Broadway Christian Center's basketball court. After asking those waving signs and banners to put them down, he announced that King had been killed. The audience, which had been anticipating a raucous political event and for the most part had been unaware of the shooting, responded to the announcement with gasps, shrieks, and cries of "No, no." Tom Keating, a police reporter for the Indianapolis Star, had raced to the scene with two policemen. He noted that the crowd reacted to the news almost like "a wounded animal."
Facing the stunned and incredulous audience, some of whom were weeping, Kennedy gave an impassioned, extemporaneous, approximately six-minute speech that has gone down in history as one of the great addresses in the modern era. A New York journalist close to Kennedy observed that the candidate "gave a talk that all his skilled speech writers working together could not have surpassed." 11 John Lewis, a seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement who had helped organize the rally, recalled that when Kennedy spoke the crowd hung on his every word. "It didn't matter that he was white or rich or a Kennedy," said Lewis. "At this moment he was just a human being, just like all of us, and he spoke that way."
To help explain the terrible tragedy, Kennedy recalled the words of Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian whose words from Agamemnon had comforted him following the assassination of his brother President John F. Kennedy. Aeschylus, he said, "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.'" He went on to attempt to calm the crowd's growing anger about King's killing with these words:
"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, whether they be white or they be black....
"We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is 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 who abide in our land.
"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.
"Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."
Later, when Kennedy campaign aide Fred Dutton returned to the Marott Hotel, he told Martin and Greenfield what Kennedy had said to the crowd. Martin and Greenfield threw the statements they had so carefully composed into the wastebasket. "What he had said was so much better than anything we had written," Martin remembered.
The news of King's violent death at the hands of a white gunman, James Earl Ray, sparked outrage and violence across the country. Black activist Stokely Carmichael told a crowd in New York: "Go home and get a gun! When the white man comes he is coming to kill you. I don't want any black blood in the street. Go home and get you a gun and then come back because I got me a gun." Riots broke out in a number of cities, including the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Regular army troops were called into action by President Johnson to bring the situation under control. But in Indianapolis the crowd at Seventeenth and Broadway had taken Kennedy's words to heart: they quietly left the rally and returned home. "We walked away in pain but not with a sense of revenge," said Crawford. There were no riots in the Circle City.
Kennedy's remarkable speech marked the beginning of a whirlwind time in Indiana. "It was perhaps the most exciting month of politics ever in this city and state," noted Keating, who later became a columnist for the Star. For most of April and early May, the eyes of the nation turned to the Hoosier State. Reporters and television correspondents from around the country flocked to Indiana to report on what Kennedy and his staff hoped would be the first in a series of primary victories in the senator's effort to capture the 1,312 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy hoped that Indiana would provide the same validation for his presidential ambitions that West Virginia had for his brother when it accorded him the primary victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1960, undermining the assumption that no Roman Catholic could attract the support of Protestant voters. "Indiana is the ballgame," Kennedy told Martin. "This is my West Virginia." In his campaign literature and at rallies before Hoosier voters, Kennedy emphasized that Indiana had the opportunity to once again play a vital role in the country's presidential contest. "Indiana can help choose a president," Kennedy repeated again and again in his speeches.
Kennedy wanted to gain enough of a mandate in Indiana to knock McCarthy out of the race for good. Because he could not pick up enough delegates from primary states to win the nomination, Kennedy also needed to have enough strong showings to impress the heads of city and state Democratic organizations, such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the majority of delegates at the convention through caucuses and state conventions. Kennedy sought to prove to these party stalwarts that he could attract the support not just of African Americans and college students, but of working-class white voters who were worried about violence in their communities and fearful of the gains made by African Americans in civil rights. This was the "white backlash" vote George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, had depended on when he captured approximately 30 percent of the Democratic vote in the 1964 Indiana presidential primary. (Indiana governor Matthew E. Welsh, running as a stand-in for Johnson, won the primary with 376,023 votes to Wallace's 172,646.) Wallace had run particularly well in the northwest section of the state, in the steel towns of Hammond and Gary, and garnered a majority of the vote in both Lake and Porter counties.
A number of Kennedy's advisers cautioned him against entering the Indiana primary. They saw the state as too conservative, and pointed to the strength of the Ku Klux Klan in the state during the 1920s, the fact that in 1960 John Kennedy had lost Indiana to Republican Richard Nixon by more than two hundred thousand votes, and Wallace's strong showing in parts of Indiana in the 1964 primary. His staff also worried that Kennedy's antiwar beliefs would clash with Hoosiers' political views, as they noted that Indianapolis was home to the national headquarters of the American Legion and the place where Robert Welch Jr. had founded the ultra-conservative John Birch Society on December 9, 1958, to fight Communist infiltration of the American government. Venturing into such foreign territory seemed to be a daunting task for both Kennedy's mainly East Coast staff and the media that reported on the campaign. Jules Witcover, who had covered the presidential campaigns in 1960 and 1964, recalled being put off because Indianapolis was home to two huge war memorials, the Indiana War Memorial and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He articulated the feelings of many national media figures about Indiana in 1968 when he commented: "Were a Martian to land his flying saucer in Monument Circle, he might well take one look, climb back in and beat a fast retreat."
Pondering all the obstacles facing the Kennedy campaign in Indiana, John Bartlow Martin, the author of a well-regarded history of the state, believed Branigin might well win the primary, with Kennedy's best chance to come in second, ahead of McCarthy. The rest of the senator's campaign staff was also pessimistic about their candidate's chances. Echoing Martin's prediction, they attempted to lower expectations by telling anyone who would listen that they did not expect to win, but just hoped to run even with the governor. Kennedy's late start and the chaotic nature of the campaign might have prompted the staff's doubts. "The 'smooth-running, well oiled Kennedy machine' got to be an office joke very quickly," said Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's press assistant. Kennedy himself had no illusions about what faced him in Indiana, and in other primaries to come in states such as Nebraska, Oregon, California, South Dakota, and New York. Warned by his advisers that entering the Indiana primary would be a gamble, he replied, "The whole campaign is a gamble."
Excerpted from Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary by Ray E. Boomhower. Copyright © 2008 Ray E. Boomhower. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society's journal Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History and author of Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut, Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr.: A Life in History and Politics, 1855–1924 and The Soldier's Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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