January 19, 2007

Go and Make Disciples / John Valenti

Memorials celebrate vision of reconciliation

The Herron-Morton Historic District, formerly known as “Camp Morton,” is an area that was used as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Most of the captured and wounded Confederate soldiers were from Mississippi, and fought in the Battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg.

Not far from this site is the Kennedy-King Memorial Park. It was April 4, 1968, and news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis had not yet reached the public.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to deliver a campaign speech in this neglected neighborhood of the black community. Kennedy’s advisers urged him to cancel his speech because everyone was afraid of how people would react to the news of King’s assassination.

Climbing up onto the back of a flatbed truck, Kennedy delivered a powerful and heartfelt impromptu speech to the inner-city crowd gathered that evening. He spoke about healing the hearts and souls of a nation, and called for reconciliation between races.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, fires and riots broke out and thousands of people were injured. Indianapolis, however, remained quiet that night, in part due to Kennedy’s compassionate plea for peace and understanding. Later that year, Kennedy would fall victim to an assassin’s bullet.

One hundred years earlier, in the same neighborhood, Camp Morton commandant Col. Richard Owen showed a similar compassion toward captured Confederate soldiers. He spoke “of the sick prisoners at the military prison, many under 18 years of age. All receive the best medical treatment possible, but the best of attention cannot save some from the grasp of death.” Those who did survive went home to tell the story of how well they were treated.

In 1911, Sumner Archibald Cunningham, the editor of Confederate Veteran Magazine, received permission to place a bronze memorial tablet in honor of the very well-liked Camp Morton commandant.

Contributions were so great that a bronze bust of Colonel Owen was substituted for the tablet and placed in the Indiana State House. The bust was dedicated in 1913 in the presence of many veterans from both the North and South.

There is also a monument on that spot where Kennedy shared the spirit and message of Martin Luther King. Artist Daniel Edwards created a statue from metal that came from handguns that were gathered at a police buy-back program and melted down to create material for this sculpture. The life-size figure of Martin Luther King seems to emerge from one wall and is reaching out. On the opposite wall is the figure of Robert Kennedy. He, too, is reaching out.

Both historic landmarks are powerful monuments that symbolize “love of enemy” and a vision of reconciliation; a vision that hopefully can spread in every neighborhood and change the heart of our country and the world.

Robert Kennedy said, “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.”

(John Valenti is the associate director of Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.) †

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