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Absorbing the King assassination that April night a half century ago, we immediately fixated on what was to come. Just weeks before, King’s initial foray into the Memphis sanitation strike had spun out of control, with chaos besmirching a nonviolent civil rights movement. Activists had moved from protests against segregated city buses and whites-only lunch counters in the South to standing up against a general lack of economic opportunity for blacks across the country.

We had witnessed the Watts riots of 1965 and Detroit burn in 1967 on the nightly news. You could sense a time bomb that would quickly turn into a national conflagration on that April night in 1968 as dozens of American cities went up in flames.

As we were reminded Tuesday night when the Indiana Historical Society replayed the documentary “A Ripple of Hope,” Indianapolis remained calm after Kennedy’s courageous decision to give a speech at 17th and Broadway.


The crowd was a mix of white RFK supporters and neighborhood blacks. Mayor Richard Lugar had been on the job for only three months and warned Kennedy not to go. He was not alone, as Indianapolis police and most of RFK’s own campaign team joined in that advice. The exception was John Lewis, a more radical civil rights pioneer who had joined the campaign.

Kennedy would inform the volatile crowd of the tragedy, and then he sought solace. “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said, talking publicly for the first time about the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, five years before. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

And then came the lines that created what is considered the greatest extemporaneous speech in American history: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, ‘Even 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.’”

“How do you quote Aeschylus to black people?” asked Frank A. Thomas, director of preaching and celebration at the Christian Theological Seminary. Many in the crowd had never heard of Aeschylus. Former state Sen. Billie Breaux explained the impact to Indianapolis Monthly: “He seemed to speak to us as human beings and not as people in the ghetto. His sincerity just came through loud and clear.”

Kennedy and King were not close, with historian Ray Boomhower describing a “great barrier” between them. But Thomas explained further, “Both of them had moral imagination. People with moral imagination get killed. When people are tribal, they don’t get killed. When I say how to preach a dangerous sermon, it’s the ones that build bridges across people. They threaten people and call people out of their tribe. With the death of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, I don’t think we’ve recovered yet.”