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Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary

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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.

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1 A Landmark for Peace

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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 1995.1

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.

 

2 The Decision

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The Decision

Very early in the morning on Friday, March 22, 1968, Gerard Doherty, a Boston attorney, stepped off a plane that had just landed at Indianapolis’s Weir Cook Municipal Airport. At the behest of Ted Kennedy, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, he had left Washington in a snowstorm to come to Indiana to investigate whether there might be enough support for Robert Kennedy to run in the state’s May 7 Democratic primary. Five days earlier, Robert Kennedy had announced his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Doherty, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, was up against a tight deadline: just one week later all candidates for the Hoosier State primary had to submit to the secretary of state’s office the signatures of 5,500 registered voters—500 signatures from each of Indiana’s eleven congressional districts.

Before flying to Indianapolis, Doherty had stopped at the new Kennedy for President campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., to be briefed on his assignment. Days earlier, after hearing that Robert Kennedy had decided to run for president, he had called Ted Kennedy’s office to volunteer his services. “I had just returned to the law business and I was chasing after ambulances,” Doherty recalled. “But, I said, I’m not going to … take apart paper clips and put them back together. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do, but it has to be meaningful.” Doherty got his wish. He flew on to Indianapolis expecting to be “greeted by thousands of cheering people”—the multitudes needed to run a successful political campaign. When he arrived, however, he soon discovered he could initially only count on the assistance of three young Hoosier Democrats: Michael Riley, Louie Mahern, and William Schreiber.1

 

3 The Governor

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The Governor

Politics has always played an important role in Indiana. For a century the state furnished candidates for national office for an assortment of American political parties. From 1840, when the Whig William Henry Harrison captured the White House with his “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign, to 1940, when Wendell Willkie won the Republican presidential nomination and challenged incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his try for a third term in office, Hoosiers were on some party’s national ticket in approximately 60 percent of the elections. By the 1880s Indiana had become such a pivotal state in securing political success for presidential candidates that the Democratic and Republican parties did everything they could, including buying votes, to win the state’s allegiance for their candidates. Loyal party workers in the nineteenth state were proud to say they had risked going to jail in pursuit of their cause. Politics became so ingrained in the state’s character that the noted humorist and journalist George Ade once joked—playing off General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous quote—that the first words of every Hoosier child upon birth were “If nominated I will run, if elected I will serve.”1

 

4 The Speech

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The Speech

Robert Kennedy’s quest for the presidency in 1968 began in utter chaos. His campaign had started more than a year behind the normal schedule for such an effort, and Kennedy lacked a national organization and the backing of any key Democratic Party officials. “I have to win through the people,” he explained to a reporter from the New York Post. “Otherwise I’m not going to win.” Kennedy also faced the difficult task of balancing the talents and egos of those who had been on his Senate staff since his election in 1964 (talented speechwriters Adam Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield and press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, for example), with former officials from President John F. Kennedy’s administration (who included such notable figures as Ted Sorenson and Pierre Salinger). Joseph Kraft, a national newspaper columnist, noted that Kennedy’s campaign had too many celebrities. “There were more chiefs than Indians,” Kraft said. “It was very hard to fit all these people together.” The frantic and disconnected nature of those early days of Kennedy’s campaign was perhaps best summed up by a question posed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a memo: “IS ANYONE IN CHARGE OF ANYTHING, ANYWHERE?”1

 

5 The Campaign

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The Campaign

As a young boy growing up in Angola, Indiana, Bill Munn took an active role in his family’s support of the Democratic Party. Wearing a tiny straw hat, Munn handed out pamphlets urging people to vote for Adlai Stevenson in his 1956 presidential run against incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower. Four years later, Munn’s father served as coordinator of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Steuben County. When Lyndon Johnson battled Republican Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964, Munn went door-to-door handing out brochures extolling Johnson’s candidacy in a county that was a hotbed of GOP activity on Goldwater’s behalf. “By the time I went off to college,” said Munn, “I already had a lot of political experience.”

At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, Munn decided to major in political science and history. “When I got to Ball State, I’d go anyplace to a [political] meeting. I’d love to hear people talk about politics,” he said. In the spring of 1968, as many of his friends became enthralled by Eugene McCarthy’s stand against the war in Vietnam, Munn found himself attracted to Robert Kennedy’s advocacy on behalf of African Americans and working people. “McCarthy had done a great service in tackling Johnson,” Munn said, “but he was like a one-horse candidate, and I never did quite figure out if he was opposed to Johnson or opposed to the war.” Munn volunteered to aid Kennedy’s attempt to win Indiana’s sixty-three delegates to the national Democratic convention by running in the state’s May 7 primary.

 

6 The Voters Speak

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The Voters Speak

On a spring day in 1968, residents of northwest Indiana were treated to a rare sight. In a caravan of automobiles that swept along city streets could be seen icons of the past and the present. One was a boxer, the son of Polish immigrants from Gary, Indiana, who had risen to become middleweight champion of the world, earning for himself the nickname “The Man of Steel” both for the place of his birth and his ability to take the punishment handed out by his opponents in the ring. The other man had also traveled a hard road to success, winning a place in the state’s history as its first African American mayor. From their very different backgrounds, Tony Zale, the boxer, and Richard G. Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, were brought together by Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign to win the Indiana primary. The two heroes of the region joined Kennedy in a motorcade through the streets of Gary on May 6, the day before Hoosier voters trooped to the polls. They represented Kennedy’s attempt to bridge the gap between whites and African Americans and bring both into a coalition that could win elections for the Democratic Party. “We have to write off the unions and the South now,” Kennedy told a reporter, “and replace them with Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids. If we can do that, we’ve got a chance to do something.”1

 

7 The Train

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The Train

The call came to the home of Anthony M. Boysa, a fireman for the Penn Central Railroad, at eight o’clock the morning of Friday, June 8, 1968, from a crew dispatcher in Newark, New Jersey. Boysa had been assigned to a twenty-one-car train pulled by two black electric locomotives scheduled to leave New York on Saturday from Pennsylvania Station for a 226-mile journey to Union Station in Washington, D.C. “They told us when they called us up to dress special—but I didn’t stay clean long,” Boysa said. “When you walk through the aisles in the engine, you brush past all the motor casings.” He remembered that the train’s engineer came to work that day in a suit with a white shirt and tie. “That was unusual,” said Boysa. Supervisors and laborers worked most of the day Friday at the Sunnyside Yards loading the train with provisions for its trip, including steaks, hamburgers, and cheesecake. The train, with an observation car at the rear draped in black bunting, finally left Pennsylvania Station at 1:02 PM Saturday. Onboard were nearly a thousand people—the family and friends of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had died two days earlier, another victim that violent year of an assassin’s bullets.1

 

Appendix: Robert F. Kennedy’s Speech in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968

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Appendix: Robert F. Kennedy’s
Speech in Indianapolis, 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? I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort.

In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

 

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