Mary Evans was in the Indianapolis crowd the night Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech just after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. Here she recounts the emotion of that night in a special story to go along with the latest installment of History Flashback, a series that looks at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
I was 16 years old in April 1968, living in Indianapolis, and I was very interested in politics. When I was 12, I had read a book of essays called The Vietnam Reader and had become passionately opposed to the Vietnam War, which was a minority opinion in Indianapolis at the time.
I believed in social justice, and I wanted to stop the war. So, in 1968, I volunteered for the campaign of Eugene McCarthy, a poet/senator (there aren’t too many of those today) who was the first anti-war candidate to join the presidential race.
On April 4, I spontaneously traveled with a small group of my high school classmates to go down to what is now known as the Kennedy-King neighborhood to hear another candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, speak during a routine campaign stop.
Although I had lived in Indianapolis almost all my life, I had never been to that neighborhood, and I didn’t really know where it was. One of our parents dropped us off, and we joined the mostly African-American crowd. In my memory, I was one of only a few white people there that night.
At first, everything was normal. Kennedy was very late, which wasn’t unusual for political rallies, and people started to get restless. Then, a rumor began circulating that someone had tried to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr., but that he had survived.
There was a growing feeling of agitation. In a neighborhood in which I knew no one, and clearly stood out, I felt nervous. I thought about leaving, but I didn’t know the neighborhood, and I realized I was stuck. There was real ambiguity as to what reality was at that moment, no one knew for sure what had happened.
And then Kennedy came out. The minute he started talking, it was like the laying on of hands. Every word out of his mouth was a balm. The whole crowd was swept up in the emotion, and I stopped being scared.
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He announced that King had been murdered, and the news was like wham, wham, wham. He said the words, but I couldn’t understand the context. It was like in the cartoons—canaries and stars were flying in and out of my cranium just from the impact of what he had said. You could feel the shock go through the crowd.
Afterwards, everyone dispersed and we waited for our ride. I remember, I had one friend who had a father from the South. The father was there to pick someone up, and he said he had a machete in his car, that it would be safer that way. That scared me even more than being in the crowd.
The following week was spring vacation, and I was scheduled to visit my grandmother in Chicago. I was excited about the trip, and I got on the plane the day after RFK’s speech as planned. As we were flying into O’Hare, the pilot said, “Those of you on the left, look out your windows.” I looked out mine and saw the south side of Chicago in flames with plumes of smoke spiraling into the air. It felt like everything was coming to a head.
I am convinced Indianapolis didn’t riot because of the words Robert Kennedy said. We were dealing with the assassination of King at a time when everyone had a flashbulb memory of November 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. These events reverberated in a way that was more profound than I think people today can even realize.
My experience in 1968 had a deep influence on my life. On my father’s side, I come from an old political family in Indiana descended from abolitionists and the Republicans who started the party with Abraham Lincoln. My father ran for office when I was young and one of my great grandfathers was the governor. That summer, I felt like I had stumbled across my political DNA, but in a 20th century context.
Later that year, I attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a volunteer for the McCarthy campaign, and I saw firsthand people getting beaten up during the clashes between the Vietnam War protestors and the police. After the convention, I had to go back to Indiana to start my junior year at an all-American, Midwestern public high school. That was my 1968.
As told to Allison McNearney
Watch RFK: The Kennedy Family Remembers, a new HISTORY special about the life of Robert F. Kennedy.