April 6, 2018

Shared legacies of King, Kennedy show the ‘power of a single person’

Abie Robinson, senior program coordinator for Indianapolis Parks and Recreation, stands on March 26 before a new memorial in Kennedy King Park in Indianapolis. The memorial pays tribute to a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in the park on April 4, 1968, the day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Robinson attended the speech. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Abie Robinson, senior program coordinator for Indianapolis Parks and Recreation, stands on March 26 before a new memorial in Kennedy King Park in Indianapolis. The memorial pays tribute to a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in the park on April 4, 1968, the day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Robinson attended the speech. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

On April 4, 1968, Indianapolis remained calm while other cities across the country descended into violence.

More than 2,000 people were injured and 39 died in riots sparked by the assassination on that day of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.

So what made Indianapolis different?

According to Abie Robinson, it was the “power of a single person”—Robert F. Kennedy.

That power not only kept Indianapolis peaceful on that night. It also spurred Robinson and Phyllis Carr to lean on their faith in the midst of that tragic day, and to give of themselves in service to the community for years to come.

Robinson, 73, works as the senior program coordinator for Indianapolis Parks and Recreation. At 83, Carr volunteers more than 20 hours per week as the Indianapolis branch secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Indianapolis.

On April 4, 1968, Robinson, Carr and several hundred other people gathered at a park at 17th Street and Broadway Avenue for a campaign rally at which Kennedy, a presidential candidate at the time, was scheduled to speak. (Related: Kennedy’s speech: A call for love, wisdom and compassion)

City officials had advised Kennedy to cancel the rally, saying they could not guarantee his safety in light of the violence breaking out across the country.

But Kennedy resolutely went forward, shelving his rally speech and speaking instead to the largely African-American audience of the tragic news.

As Kennedy announced it, many shrieked and wailed in disbelief and grief.

An ‘emotional swing’

Recalling the evening, Carr said she “was astonished and really overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it.” Then, considering the violence that often confronted the civil rights movement, she added, “But I could believe a little because of all the things that had been going on.”

“The first feeling was one of rage, revenge and retaliation,” said Robinson of hearing Kennedy announce the news. “But, fortunately, the words that he spoke in that speech brought back to mind the philosophy of Martin Luther King, his method, his way of doing things. During the course of that speech, I could feel an emotional swing from one of anger to one of understanding.”

Kennedy empathized with his listeners, making reference to the assassination five years earlier of his brother, President John F. Kennedy—one of the few times he spoke publicly about it. And he invited them to embrace anew Rev. King’s principles of non‑violence and promoting racial harmony.

“It reinforced to me the idea that, depending on the level of your commitment and the resistance that you meet, if what you’re talking about is so emotionally strong with some people, then you have to be careful,” said Robinson, a member of Eastern Star Baptist Church in Indianapolis. “The end result may be that you end up sacrificing your life for your beliefs. What more noble thing can you do than to die for something you believe in?

“At the same time, how many people really want to make that level of commitment?”

Like Rev. King, Kennedy had a commitment to positive change in society that, in some respects, led to his life being threatened.

Two months after promoting peace in Indianapolis on the day of Rev. King’s death, Kennedy himself was gunned down on June 5 after a campaign rally in Los Angeles.

“It was just overwhelming,” said Carr of Kennedy’s death. “It just really touched my heart. I had a lot of sympathy for the family that had been through a lot.”

A commitment to faith and service

Carr, a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis, had already been committed to the ideals of the civil rights movement for years before 1968, working in Indianapolis for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Rev. King, and participating in marches across the country.

Her faith helped her cope with the tragedy of April 4, 1968.

“But you still wonder, ‘My God, why did it happen?’ ” said Carr. “You still have that question there, even though you have the faith.”

The questions did not lead her to doubt her commitment. In fact, looking back 50 years later, she reflected that Kennedy’s speech only strengthened her efforts to promote the common good.

“It made me a little more determined to do all I could to improve the quality of life for people, and try to educate people about going to the polls and voting,” Carr said. “It pushed me to do that. I guess I’ve always been a community-minded person. It pushed me to do that a little bit more and not think so much of myself.”

In addition to working for good in the broader community, Carr also served for many years as St. Rita’s parish secretary and on advisory boards for Catholic education and Catholic Charities in the archdiocese.

Robinson also extended his service beyond his work with senior citizens for Indianapolis Parks and Recreation. The Navy veteran previously led efforts in the city to prevent homelessness and fight hunger.

His office is adjacent to the park where 50 years ago he heard Kennedy deliver a speech that changed his life.

“I am back where this whole epiphany of service came to me, on the day that Martin Luther King died,” Robinson said.

Like Carr, he sees his commitment to serving the broader community flowing from the example of Rev. King and the ideals articulated by Kennedy.

“It shows me how the idea of what Martin Luther King stood for and died for, how faith in it can put you in a position where you can make a difference,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t have to happen nationally. It has to be you, your family, your community, your church. Be who you are in that sphere. That’s all that God asks of you.”

Fighting evil with good

Around the time that Kennedy gave his speech in Indianapolis, Father Kenneth Taylor was finishing up a practice for the baseball team for the Latin School of Indianapolis, the archdiocese’s former high school seminary.

He heard the news of Rev. King’s death on a car radio on his way back to the seminary.

“I was kind of stunned,” Father Taylor recalled. “I remember not saying anything to anybody else in the car. I didn’t know what to say or do.”

He was so affected in part because the example of Rev. King had helped him be open to God’s call to priestly service.

“He was a big part of why I went ahead and became a priest,” said Father Taylor, pastor of Holy Angels and St. Rita parishes, both in Indianapolis. “Him being a minister and the Church’s involvement in the civil rights movement—it just struck me how important the work of the Church can be in changing lives for the better, changing the nation for the better.”

Like Carr and Robinson, Rev. King’s death led him to be committed to service all the more.

“It confirmed it even more, that the role of the Church is important,” Father Taylor reflected.

Looking back 50 years later, Father Taylor sees much contemporary relevance in Rev. King’s death and Kennedy’s speech.

“There is nationwide significance to it,” Father Taylor said. “So many people are trying to rev up fear and division and reactionary kinds of things.

“But that speech is a reminder that we need to fight evil with good, to come together, to draw out the higher qualities of humanity and not to give in to division and the fears of others and the unknown, which a lot of people are doing today.”

Carr agrees and sees faith as offering an alternative to divisiveness and distrust.

“We can’t give in to that,” she said. “There are people who are constantly praying that all of this trauma and discord will come to an end. I think it’s tearing our country apart. You just have to keep moving forward with the things that you know you can do and get accomplished to help to put an end to it.”

Leaning on prayer is one way Carr plans to move forward. It also gives her a broader perspective on the challenges that continue to face society 50 years after that tragic day in 1968.

“I firmly believe that prayer really changes things,” she said. “It may not change things the way you want them to be changed, the way you’re praying for it to be changed. But if you just keep praying for change to come for the betterment of people and the quality of their life, I believe it will come.” †


Related: St. Rita parishioner recalls interactions with late civil rights leader

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