A Prayer For Peace

RFK/MLK MemorialIt was a routine campaign stop in Indianapolis. Robert Kennedy had spent the earlier part of the day in South Bend and Muncie, IN, speaking to the bread and butter of his constituency- college students. While at Ball State University, an African-American student posed the question to Kennedy- “Your speech implies that you are placing a great deal of faith in white America. Is that faith justified?” Kennedy responded that he did indeed believe that faith in white America was justified, just as faith in black America was justified because any faith in America is worth placing. As he was boarding a plane to leave, the news came down- Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis. Kennedy was devastated; he had just promised this young man that there was potential and promise in the American public, and now “His spiritual leader has been shot”. Kennedy held his head in his hands for the remainder of the flight. “When is the violence going to end?” he asked. Upon arriving in Indianapolis, he found himself speaking to a crowd just off of College Ave. and 16th Street. Moments earlier, one of his staff had confirmed it- Martin Luther King, Jr. had died of his wounds. Kennedy asked a staffer a question:

“Do they know about Martin Luther King?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6mxL2cqxrA&w=640&h=360]

What followed was a brief, yet powerful speech on the importance of forgiveness in the face of injustice. Speaking for the first time about his deceased brother, Robert Kennedy reminded the crowd of their ability to look beyond the obvious issues and complications in the American social landscape of 1968 “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.” His final exhortation included a quotation from Aeschylus:

“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.” That night, rioting broke out in every major American city, from Baltimore to Los Angeles- every major city except Indianapolis. This was unexpected to many, including the sheriff's deputy who advised Kennedy not to make the speech. However, Indianapolis residents don’t have much history of rioting outside of the streetcar strike of 1913. Whether it was the effect of the speech, or their genuinely peaceful nature, Circle Citizens responded with grief and resolve, but not violence. There was nationwide attention given to the stop in Indianapolis, and many analysts believed that this would be the defining moment of Kennedy’s campaign - it would unfortunately become one of the defining moments of his life. 2 months later, Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. When the Robert Kennedy memorial was built at Arlington National Cemetery, the text of the speech was inscribed on a low granite wall around a reflecting pool.

Indianapolis had made several efforts to memorialize the man and the moment, but there were several false starts over the years. Finally, a partnership between donors, the city, and the Indianapolis Pacers brought forth the Landmark for Peace Memorial project in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on College Ave. Ground for the memorial was broken in May of 1994 in an event attended by President Clinton and Sen. Ted Kennedy, (The weekend would come to be known as “The President, The Pacers, and the Indy 500” by local media outlets,) and the sculpture designed by Indianapolis artist Greg Perry was finally erected in 1996.

The memorial stands as the centerpiece to the King Park area, a collection of neighborhoods on the city’s near-north side. Bounded by MLK Park, the Monon, Meridian St., and Fall Creek, King Park has seen a rapid growth in residential and business development. Goose the Market, Footlite Musicals, the Gramse apartment building, and the Old Centrum have all drawn considerable local attention in the past few years, and more is coming soon, as the area serves as a lynchpin for many local development efforts.

But more than that, the monument and the spirit of the neighborhood it resides in serve as a reminder that peace is not given, it is worked for. The citizens of Indianapolis have known tragedy and heartbreak- the Coliseum explosion, the Tony Kiritsis standoff, the Ramada Inn plane crash, the State Fair stage collapse- but time after time they have shown that they are defined by what they can overcome, not what they allow to happen. Inspiration may have come from Kennedy and King, but it was the efforts of the people themselves to heed those words that made the peace so significant:

“...let's 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.”