On the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis. He was already scheduled to speak in the urban park at 17th and Broadway.
Many on Kennedy’s team—as well as Indianapolis public officials—urged him to cancel the appearance. Kennedy’s safety was at risk, especially in this predominately African-American neighborhood where the anger over the news could erupt as violence. In fact, in other cities it was already starting to happen.
Kennedy would not be deterred. He went to the park, and stepped onto the makeshift stage in the bed of a pickup truck…
“Do they know about Martin Luther King?”
Off microphone, just before he addressed the crowd, Kennedy can be heard asking about the crowd’s knowledge of King’s death. It was 1968, and news moved much more slowly then. Those near the stage had been there for several hours. They did not know. Yet, many more streaming into the park had heard the awful truth, and were bringing with them their shock and anger. It was a volatile, combustible moment. And then, without notes, Kennedy began to speak…
“I have some very sad news for all of you.”
The reaction was immediate and visceral. Stunned by the revelation, the nearby crowd gasped. People pushed forward, everyone in the park locked onto Kennedy’s words.
They were simple words—direct, revealing, and yet they elevated everyone who heard them above their worst impulses, and delivered them to a place of reflection, forgiveness, and love.
“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 and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”
Just over two months later, Kennedy himself would be assassinated, and the nation experienced another sudden, wrenching loss.
He will be remembered for many things but perhaps none endure as prominently as his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, where the words he spoke in Indianapolis are engraved.
Because on that night, while cities across the nation erupted in violence, Indianapolis stayed calm. Kennedy’s speech reverberated across the city, working its way deep into the hearts of many, where its power has only grown.
The words he spoke on April 4, 1968
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you.
Could you lower those signs, please?
Hundreds of lives were changed that night
Here are just a few…
Julia Carson, who in 1968 was a twenty-nine-year-old caseworker in the Indianapolis office of Democratic U.S. Congressman Andy Jacobs, Jr. She attended the speech that night and went on to a life of public service, serving in both the Indiana General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. Her grandson, Andre Carson, now represents the district she served until her death in 2007.
Theodore Boehm, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer and Robert F. Kennedy campaign volunteer present for the speech. Following the speech, Boehm joined others with Kennedy at the Marott Hotel. Boehm went on to a life of public service. He served as CEO for the 1987 Pan Am Games planning committee and recently retired after a fourteen-year term on the Indiana Supreme Court. Boehm recalled that “the campaign was a pivotal event for me that rededicated a career towards public service.”
Take a deeper look
films and books that have chronicled Kennedy’s speech and its historical significance
A Ripple of Hope is an independent historical documentary. The film dramatically retells the events of April 4, 1968. With digitally restored news footage, A Ripple of Hope presents the events of that tragic day thru the eyes of those who were there.
A beautiful short by filmmaker Zachary Shields. The film was an official selection of Indy International Film Festival in 2010.
Marking the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's Indianapolis speech, Ray Boomhower’s 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.
The event as seen in the Indiana Historical Society’s series.