robert kennedy in indianapolis: “a ripple of hope”

Over the past year, we’ve had a couple of really good conversations on this site about Robert F. Kennedy. Quite a few of us apparently idolize the man, and my sense is that a lot of folks here share my sentiment that his assassination, perhaps even more that that of his brother, marked a real turning point for our nation… It was after one of these exchanges that I received an email from a college professor in Indiana named David Baird. He had read through our conversation and he wanted for me to pass along a note to local history professor Mark Higbee, who had left a comment about, as a child, having heard RFK deliver a speech in Indiana on the night that Martin Luther King was killed. Here’s what Mark had said:

…I saw him speak the night Martin Luther King was killed, and while at age 7 i could not grasp all he said, his eloquence and his plea for brotherly love was stunning and unforgettable. This was in Indianapolis, and he spoke to a largely Black, inner city audience. My dad, then a Kennedy Democrat, took me there that night to that rally, as he’d taken me to other Kennedy campaign events. There were race riots across the nation that night, April 4, as Blacks vented their frustration at MLK’s death in an uncaring, racist America – his death marked the shattering of hope for progress in America. But that night, there were no race riots in Indianapolis. RFK’s speech has been credited by some with that. I believe it to be true, but i don’t know, don’t really know, how wide an influence his speech had on Black youth in the city…

Mark, David and I then went on to exchange several notes about that night in Indiana, its historical import, and David’s interest. David, a communications professor, was working on a documentary film about that night, and he wanted to talk with Mark about his memories of it. Well, I just heard from David that his work is nearing its end. While the film itself isn’t completely done, he’s posted a trailer online, and he’s in the process of trying to find a media outlet interested in broadcasting the film on the upcoming 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. If you happen to know of someone in “the media”, please forward them the link. From the trailer, it looks like an amazing piece of work, and I think we could all really benefit right now from hearing the message and remembering what it was like to have real, courageous, principled leaders… If you’d like to know more about this project, after watching the trailer, there’s an article in “The Indianapolis Star”.

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  1. Mark H.
    Posted February 3, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Mark M., for this post on the film on RFK in Indianapolis. From all I can tell, it’s a very important piece of work — especially to all of us who still have hopes for an American politics of promise and inclusion, rather than cynicism and manipulation and hopelessness. Kennedy knew that speech matters, that leaders can matter.

    One of the things us professional historians (well, many of us) are obsessed about is how historical memory is shaped. My memories of the RFK campaign in Indiana are clear in my mind…but by reading up on the film “A Ripple of Hope” I have learned that my memory on one point at least must be faulty The night Martin Luther King was killed was the start of Kennedy’s month long campaign in Indiana. I heard him that night, but that must have been the first time I heard him, not a repeat, as I wrote on this blog some time ago (and which Mark quoted above). In my memory, there’s a clarity of seeing him campaign at least a few times, but no clear order of those campaign events…. Not a huge point, and not one that invalidates my memory of the experience of being a 7 year old kid volunteer in the Kennedy 68 campaign — the real point is what “meaning” we all attach to historical memories. I obviously attach a lot of meaning to having seen Bobby in person.

    I vividly recall seeing the hand of Bobby Kennedy being red and raw, from shaking the hands of hundreds of people, as the crowd clamored to touch this man who we hoped would save the nation. I also recall my mother saying later than she declined to shake his hand, feeling that it would hurt him, but I don’t recall if I did or did not shake his hand: That image, of his wounded hands and his enthusiastic smile, must have been from later appearances on the Indiana primary campaign, for which the voting day was in early May. It came after hearing him on the night Dr. King was murdered, not before, as my memory had had it for decades. This kind of reconstructing of memories and their origins may bore everyone else in land, but it fascinates me for reasons both personal and professional….

    I do recall stuffing campaign envelopes at the Kennedy campaign headquarters, folding letters and putting in campaign leaflets, and sealing envelopes with a wet sponge. My sisters and I and our dad and i don’t know who else was there. We’d go there on Saturdays and weekdays after school, my dad picking us up. We knew it was important to elect Kennedy, a man we felt would stop wars and promote justice. I also recall wondering why just some senators, not all of them, ran for president, which shows how immature my sense of politics was at age 7.

    One of my most treasured sentimental possessions is the “thank you” note that Senator Kennedy’s office in Washington had printed and sent to volunteers in the Indiana primary. We got the note before the vote, and it was a thrill, and no doubt it helped volunteers to do even more. My own copy of it somehow got lost when I was a kid, and i was bitterly sad by its loss. When my father died a few years ago, though, in his various papers, the copy of the same note that he’d gotten from Senator Kennedy turned up, and i inherited it, replacing the one I’d lost 3 decades ago. Now it’s framed and in my office…. Sometimes what we lose comes back to us in unexpected ways and times. May the same be true for an American politics of hope!

    The Indiana primary in ’68 was i think the last time that state was pivotal in a presidential campaign….Bobby won the state big, over the governor, who was a stand in for Hubert Humphrey.

    Bobby Kennedy lives. So does Martin King. Deep in my heart, I do believe.

  2. mark
    Posted February 3, 2008 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment, Mark.

    And do let me know if/when you’re able to arrange for a viewing of David’s documentary at EMU. I’d love to help promote it.

  3. Edwards Fan
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I haven’t confirmed it, but someone just told me that all three of RFK’s children have come out in support of Hillary Clinton.

  4. Publius
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I heard an African American man talk with reverence about how he attended that speech. It had an impact on him.

  5. Mark H.
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    yes, three of Robert Kennedy’s children have endorsed Hillary, but I think Robert and Ethel Kennedy had more than 3 children. RFK Jr., Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Rory Kennedy, are backing Hillary. Their uncle, Senator Edward M., and their cousin, JFK’s daughter Caroline, have endorsed Obama. It’s a big family, with lots of room for lots of opinions.

  6. Mark H.
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    actually, Robert and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children. The youngest of these, Rory, was born some months after her father’s death.

  7. Edwards Fan
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I maintain that only three of them are legitimate.

  8. Jim
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I found this site while trying to answer a question. Maybe someone here would be willing to help. I remember going to the old Meadows Shopping Center on E. 38th St. so that my mother could cash in her Green Stamps at the redemption store. While at the shopping center RFK was there giving a speech and I got to shake his hand. I’m pretty sure he was standing on a flat bed truck making the speech. Does anyone else recall this speech? I find a lot of references to the speech at 17th and Broadway but, I’m trying to figure out if the speech I saw was the same day as MLK was assassinated or was it on a different day??? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

  9. mark
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I believe, on the occasion of MLKs assassination, Robert Kennedy got to Indianapolis quite late in the evening. At least, I recall it being dark outside. My guess is that if your mom was redeeming her Green Stamps, that it would have been earlier in the day. Maybe Kennedy made another appearance in Indianapolis the following day.

  10. Mark H.
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Jim —

    I think Mark M. is right. The RFK speech on the day that King was killed was late in the day – after dark. That speech was Kennedy’s first campaign speech in indianapolis, but he returned later for other campaign appearances (the Indiana primary was on May 6, i think), so probably you saw him on one of those later visits. And i think he often did campaign from the back of a truck – crowds on the sidewalks.

  11. Jim
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Mark and Mark H.
    Thanks! I do recall it being daylight when I saw him which added to my confusion since all “the speech” pictures are at night. Thanks again for your help.


  12. Posted March 29, 2008 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m interested in Mark H’s comment, “But that night, there were no race riots in Indianapolis. RFK’s speech has been credited by some with that. I believe it to be true, but i don’t know, don’t really know, how wide an influence his speech had on Black youth in the city.”

    I am researching this and find it hard to believe that one 6 minute speech could prevent the outbreak of riots. What else do think led to the lack of violence in Indy at that time?

  13. little richard
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Margot, why wouldn’t calming words from one of the nation’s leading politicans, whose brother had been shot dead five years earlier, have a sobering affect on youth who may have heard him? RFK, in saying that violence would not restore Martin Luther King to life or honor his goals, truly echoed what King stood for. And I believe that the audience who was there to hear Bobby Kennedy that night knew that, by and large.

    The bigger questoin would be, were the types of individuals who would have been most prone to rioting after King’s murder attendening the kennedy speech? Sources differ. Another question is – what is needed to spark a riot? Lots of things, and Indianapolis had some but not all of them that night. 110 cities had riots — but lots of others did not. Why not? Bobby only spoke in one city.

    Hope this reply helps in your research, margot. Peace be with us all.

  14. Robert
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I saw the “Ripple of Hope” documentary for the first time last night. They showed it on PBS.

    It was good.

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