Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis: 1968
Written By: Jeremy Meier
As Robert F. Kennedy prepared remarks to be shared with a crowd in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, he was briefed on the horrific news: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy was cautioned against keeping this speaking engagement. There was speculation that there could be riots. But Kennedy would not slink away from potential catastrophe. He would not blink at discomfort—he rarely had in his life.
Kennedy’s 82-day campaign for the presidency was tumultuous at times. There was uncertainty at the start—would he run against incumbent and fellow Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson? At first, RFK fueled his campaign on the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, but by spring, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election and speculated that the war would soon come to an end. Kennedy needed to adapt the mission statement of his campaign and, in doing so, he found perhaps his strongest message. The focus of the campaign shifted to a vision of equality—for the poor, for Native Americans, and for Blacks.
And so, RFK felt no moral leeway when it came to his Indianapolis speaking engagement. He was obligated to address King’s assassination to the large crowd. Kennedy composed his ideas in the vehicle as it drove him into the city. He got out of the vehicle and observed an accumulation of campaign signs and a large crowd in hopeful excitement. With little salutation, he broke into his speech and told them King had been killed.
He spoke from the heart. He expressed his devastation.
He encouraged the shocked crowd to seek understanding in their fellow human beings. He pleaded for peace and compassion. He emphasized these tenets to be what King had made his life’s work to profess.
There were riots in major American cities across the country on the evening of April 4. There was not one in Indianapolis.
This spring is the 50-year anniversary of Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency. To this day, there is rarely a presidential candidate who does not try to channel the kind of fervor, freshness, and excitement with which he ran. As a nation, we continue to wrestle with the dilemmas of racial inequality and poverty. Many of the ideals with which Kennedy ran for president are still, sadly, unrealized. That is why the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy is still vitally significant today.