By LARRY HANSON, guest columnist
The year 1968 was tragic, full of civil unrest and dominated by anti-war protests and assassinations. Fifty years ago, I was a 17-year-old high school junior, and found myself a witness to some of those events. But one in particular stands out.
I was in Indianapolis, just a few feet away from Robert F. Kennedy, when he announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed by an assassin.
My journey to the park at 17th and Broadway on the evening of April 4, 1968, began when I got hired to be a photographer for the Kennedy for President campaign in Indiana. How that happened is a story by itself, but for another time.
What many who didn’t live through those times might not know is that first, President John F. Kennedy, and then his brother, Robert, were looked upon almost as rock stars, celebrities. This is why, when my high school teachers found out what I was doing, they virtually gave me a free pass to skip school whenever I needed to work a campaign event. All I had to do was give them some photos of RFK, or some of the many other celebrities involved in the campaign.
Earlier in the day on April 4, my English teacher offered to drive me to the campaign events for the day. She brought along her own camera, a white Polaroid Swinger, in hopes of getting some photos of her own. And she not only got some photos, but as we were caught up in the campaign crowd at one point, Robert Kennedy asked if he could step on her car’s passenger seat to address the crowd.
My job with the campaign was to snap photos of individuals who shook hands with Kennedy. I always had at least two volunteers who would run up and get the name, address and other information from the one photographed to send them a copy of the photo. Over the span of just a few short months, I’m quite sure I took thousands of such photos.
It was a drizzly, dull, overcast day. There was a break from the campaign action, so my teacher and I started to head toward 17th and Broadway in downtown Indianapolis. She was still excited from her close encounter with RFK and asked me to try and get an up-close photo of RFK at the next stop when he gave a speech. I wasn’t too excited about setting aside my professional gear for a Polaroid, but I agreed to try and get at least one for her.
Once we reached the location, a crowd was already gathering. A flatbed semitrailer had been parked in the middle of the park and was being flooded by lights from the many television crews in attendance. This was before the Secret Service was assigned to protect presidential candidates, so my campaign credentials allowed me full access to anywhere — but my teacher didn’t have those. She stayed behind with the crowd while I made my way to a great shooting spot right in front of where Bobby Kennedy would be speaking.
It was around this time I began to notice something was different about this campaign stop. The crowd was virtually all African-American, and grumbling loudly. I saw on the edge of the crowd that some were carrying clubs, ball bats, chains, and I even saw a couple of gasoline cans. For the first time, I began to worry about where I was.
Right at that time, the crowd behind me got noisy, and I saw Bobby come up on the flatbed. Because the crowd was so crushing, I took my glasses off to avoid breaking them. The microphone was on, and as RFK stepped up to it, he asked someone, “Do they know yet?” He was told they were going to leave it up to him. He then turned to face the crowd.
In the video of the speech, I’m in front and to Bobby’s right. I first take a photo with the white Swinger, and then you can see the shock on my face, as well as the crowd’s, when Bobby speaks the following words: “I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight. “
Before he could speak again, the screams of anguish and anger emanating from the crowd caused almost everyone, myself included, to turn and look at the crowd. I was scared beyond comprehension, as I saw many of the weapons being raised and brandished. I was sure I was about to be caught up in a full-scale riot.
At that moment, Bobby spoke again in a low, reassuring voice that caused many in the crowd to quiet down so they could hear him. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”
He continued: “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is 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 there evidently is, that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization — black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
Then Bobby paused for just a moment, and said, “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘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.’
“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.”
With a short pause, Bobby spoke directly to the crowd with a plea for peace. “So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
“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 make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
I don’t remember if anyone applauded. In my mind, the crowd stood in stunned silence while Sen. Kennedy walked to the back of the flatbed and was helped to the ground.
I remember that I was no longer frightened, just filled with sadness. I had many friends from the black community involved in the Kennedy campaign, and as the crowd began to thin, I spotted them on the flatbed trailer. They were consumed with grief, crying and hugging each other. I spoke to a couple of these friends as I now made my way off the trailer, and suddenly realized that the entire crowd was quietly dispersing. The weapons weren’t out anymore. People were just sharing their grief, quietly.
As it turned out, Indianapolis was the only major city in the United States that did not break out in violence that evening. Certainly, the words of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had a large part in that.
As I found out later, Bobby gave that speech with no notes or preparation. It also was the first time in five years he said anything publicly about his brother’s assassination.
I found my teacher and we rode back in silence. For the rest of the campaign, I traveled around the country as Kennedy’s campaign began steamrolling to a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination for President. I, luckily, missed Bobby’s assassination in California because it was the last day of my junior year and I had to be there.
Afterward, I finished out 1968 working for different presidential candidates. I was at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and witnessed firsthand some of the violence that occurred. Eventually, I worked for the Humphrey/Muskie campaign that ended in Richard Nixon being elected president.
Four years ago, my daughter was watching a documentary on Bobby Kennedy. She had heard my story many times, but this was the first time she actually saw me there. Grabbing her cellphone, she managed to snap some photos off her flat screen and posted them to Facebook. One of these photos, though a bit blurry, is seen here.
Larry Hanson of Brown County is an advertising account executive for the Brown County Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.